Today I attended a presentation given by Paul Neiman, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at SCSU. The topic of his presentation was international business ethics. He focused on providing an ethical framework for conducting international business from a social contract perspective, expanding on the work of John Rawls and his “A Theory of Justice.” The presentation is based on a paper he is currently in the process of writing.

The basic premises are that social contracts should incorporate common shared presumptions that are reasonable and generally acceptable. Based on this, Dr. Neiman argues there are four restrictions that seem reasonable and generally acceptable to place on free markets:

1. Contractors should not be forced into accepting or rejecting principles.
2. Contractors should not be willfully deceived in arguing for or against principles.
3. All contractors must have an equal right to propose or argue against principles.
4. All contractors should expect that the terms of the social contract will be enforced.

These are all well and good. They are reasonable and generally acceptable rules to impose. The problem is when Dr. Neiman ventured into what these rules would result in for two contractors, one representing a corporation and another representing a community, coming to negotiate a deal but who are completely unfamiliar with their constituents. That is, the business contractor does not know anything about the corporation he is representing other than that they seek profit maximization. Likewise, the community contractor does not know anything about the community she represents except that they care about their living standards, their culture and social norms, their environment, and so on. These two people are then supposed to negotiate a deal based on the four rules above, and we’re supposed to assume both have an equality of power (the community does not desperately need the corporation and the corporation does not desperately need the community).

Based on these rules, Dr. Neiman posits that the negotiators will come to expect that the corporation is obligated to pay a living wage, be fully responsible for any environmental damage it creates, respect cultural and social norms all the time (i.e. not just when it is profitable to do so), and so on. Clearly it seems the balance of power rests with the community negotiator, not with the corporation (and Dr. Neiman justifies this by saying it is the community that has the deal-breaking terms, as if the corporation has none of its own).

To be frank, the presentation made little economic sense to me, as someone who is minoring in the subject. That’s just my opinion. Let’s take the living wage obligation, for example. Dr. Neiman says the community won’t accept any corporation that won’t pay its population a living wage because that would decrease their wages. I assume that means they won’t take any salary below the average. Already something seems quite wrong with this ethical framework. What happens to, say, cashiers at a grocery store? They usually don’t get paid a “living wage” because they do not add at least that much revenue to the company. If the marginal cost of an additional laborer does not at least equal the marginal revenue of hiring that laborer, the laborer won’t be hired. That is, the company won’t hire someone at a cost that exceeds the benefit that hiring that person would bring. Otherwise they’re just losing money. So what does this mean when we say the corporation is obligated to pay a living wage? Well, it means this theoretical world doesn’t have any cashiers or any other job, for that matter, that would normally pay less than a “living wage.” (That’s the classical argument against minimum wages, a topic I’ve explored here [by far my most popular post for some reason]. The difference, really, is in the magnitude in setting the minimum. The hypothetical purpose of a minimum wage, as I see it, is to set wages at an equilibrium price that clears the market, essentially correcting for market failures that exist. A “living wage” minimum sets it way above this level and is based more on ethical rather than economic arguments.)

So the result is actually very high unemployment because there is a lack of jobs. Jobs that cannot afford to pay a “living wage” won’t exist. People whose labor is not worth this living wage are out of luck. And I did ask Dr. Neiman about this problem. He essentially responded that he doesn’t buy the argument and that perhaps some people will just have to live unemployed to persevere the interests of the community, namely high wages. To me, this is a very astonishing ethical guideline he is proposing. What he is saying is that it is better to receive nothing rather than something. That it is better to live in poverty and in unemployment than to receive at least some amount equal to the worth of your labor (if your labor is worth less than the “living wage”). Is that ethical? Further, having people earning zero rather than even a minimal amount decreases the average wage, what Dr. Neiman was originally against.