One of the topics I’ve been thinking about over the last few weeks is whether a developed state might reasonably be accused of exploited a developing state when it admits its skilled immigrants, allows them to work in its economy and then benefits from their tax contributions. We can make progress on this question if we think about the nature of exploitation in general and then try to apply that concept to this case. In my last post, I suggested that we follow Alan Wertheimer’s proposal and regard exploitation as involving an interaction between parties in which one gains at the other’s expense through an illegitimate process. One party gains at another’s expense if he gains “in a way that makes another worse off relative to a standard of fair division. So to explain the concept of exploitation in more detail we need to say more about “fair division” and “illegitimate process”.
In this post I want to focus on the notion of “illegitimate process”. I want to understand whether the benefits that the receiving state acquires from skilled immigration – in particular, the tax contributions it acquires from the skilled immigrant – are benefits acquired through the kind of illegitimate process that occurs in exploitation. So, how, in general, should we understand that process?
One possibility is to understand it as a process of forced transfer from one party to another. Now the kind of “forced transfer” that might occur in cases of exploitation isn’t that of one party’s being coerced by another. If one person coerces another to give him some money – i.e. by physically grabbing the money from him, or by issuing a threat – he commits a wrong, of course. But the kind of wrong he commits isn’t the wrong of exploitation. Exploitation is different from theft.
The more plausible kind of “forced transfer” that exploitation might consist in is a transfer forced by circumstance. We might say, for example, that the impoverished worker is exploited when he is forced by his economic circumstances to accept an extremely low wage offer. This is how I implicitly understood exploitation in my last post when I said that developing sending states might be in a situation in which they are forced to contribute benefits to receiving states: they must bring into existence another generation of citizens, and they are unable to retain some of the skilled members of that generation, because of their difficult economic circumstances.
I now think that this way of explicating the illegitimate process that exploitation consists of cannot be quite right. One problem is that it allows that the exploiting party can be entirely passive, and yet exploitation seems to involve some sort of active involvement of the exploiting party in the process of transfer. Another problem is that people can seem to be exploited even if they are not forced to transfer benefits to others. Suppose a group of workers are unjustly poor but not so poor that they are desperate. They can refuse a low wage offer and still manage to live decently. However suppose they accept the low wage offer nevertheless because they have certain goals that they can only achieve if they earn (low) wages. We might think that they are exploited in these circumstances even though they weren’t forced to transfer their labour at a low wage.
These two points suggest a different way in which we should explicate the “illegitimate process” that occurs in exploitation. First, we should focus on the fact that the exploited party is a victim of background injustice. Secondly, we should say that the exploiting party is somehow making use of that injustice in in order to gain a benefit from the exploited party. Exploitation, in other words, involves one party using the fact that another party is a victim of injustice in order to gain a benefit at the other party’s expense.
The question is whether, on this this more plausible construal of the “illegitimate process” that occurs in exploitation, receiving states can be said to be exploiting developing sending states when they benefit from their skilled immigrants.