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The reality of modern slavery and its role in nearly every consumer good purchased by the American people is as undeniable as it is difficult to extricate from global supply chains. If you own any cotton garment, for example, there is a 20 percent chance that it is sourced from Xinjiang in China, the “autonomous region” in which more than a million Uighur Muslims are subject to forced labor and other horrors.

A recent piece of legislation introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley would help to change this. The bill presented by the Missouri Republican would among other things require companies to certify that slave labor is not present at any point along their supply chains and implement a detailed auditing process that would include interviews with management and labor and independent review of documents. It would also institute severe penalties, with amounts as high as $500 million, for noncompliance.

This seems like a no-brainer, right? Alas, not all economists agree. In a piece for Bloomberg, George Mason University’s Tyler Cowen argues that, in fact, requiring American companies not to employ slaves is a bad idea because it will make products ranging from texiles to food more expensive: “[R]ather than buying shrimp from Southeast Asia,” he writes, “a retailer might place an order for more salmon from Norway, where it is quite sure there is no slavery going on … The losers will be U.S. consumers, who will face higher prices and less choice.”

Who would have thought that it costs more to buy something when it is produced by someone who works in humane conditions for a living wage? The next thing we’re going to hear is that not being allowed to pollute our rivers and streams places an undue burden on our already-struggling multinational corporations.

There is a reason we call economics the dismal science. Matthew Walther


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