Factory Collapse in BangladeshIf you know a free market champion, then you've heard the argument that low-wage, low-skill, mostly mindless jobs are better than no jobs at all. The idea works well in theory. I admit, I've even made the case myself from time to time.

On the other hand, you might have heard recently about things like the collapse of an industrial building in Savar, Bangladesh—home to five garment factories—where the death toll recently topped one thousand.

I say "on the other hand" since the any-job-is-better-than-no-job argument (AJBNJ) works well, until it doesn't.

As you'd expect, I have no idea why the factory in Savar collapsed; I also don't know why it was occupied that particular day. There could be many explanations. Among them, no doubt, is the distinct possibility (one being reported) that known structural flaws precipitated the collapse, but that factory owners felt the need to disregard them in the name of higher production. This might also not be the case. Who knows?

The contrast, however, between the market ideal in question and the commercial reality is sharp. I'm not arguing—at least here—that there's a clear causal relationship (e.g., if profit-seekers pursue a market ideal then the conditions for workers grow actually worse). I'm willing to bet that readers will be divided almost 50/50 on whether that's the case. (After all, free markets don't require a lack of safety—and in fact would ideally work to guarantee their own survival—but the way such markets are sometimes pursued in extreme real-world conditions doesn't seem to show much concern for it; etc.)

The point, here, is simply that AJBNJ suffers a huge blind spot when it comes to connecting "better" economics with "better" humanity.

One obvious rule breaker for AJBNJ—or at least an unspoken restrictive condition—is that some jobs don't fit the scope of reasonability. I don't think I've ever heard the case made that, if it were in demand, creating lots of low-wage brothels would be better than the alternative. (Some might think that—and clearly such markets do exist to varying degrees—but I'm at least not in conversation with any such proponents.) There's an assumption, for the most part, that the AJBNJ argument works best if we're talking about run-of-the-mill production of goods (both figuratively and literally). Services, especially controversial ones, not so much.

The exemption of certain types of jobs provides a flag for why AJBNJ isn't very cogent. Proponents remind us that just because jobs exist doesn't mean anyone has to take them; but if they are taken, it's assumed that the risks and rewards have been weighed and that the decision is rational. Something about mass prostitution isn't rational, though—and presumably for reasons other than its clear, long-term unsustainability (otherwise, the same hesitation would probably have to apply to the mass production of plastic trinkets). Built into AJBNJ is a recognition that, in reality, "better" for people includes something more than calculated economic risks and rewards. It might be a subtle concession—and maybe not a universal one—but it's there.

What the sad case of Savar, Bangladesh suggests, I think, is that the positive rationality criterion of AJBNJ is far less comprehensive than most advocates would admit. In other words, in retrospect, that so many people would have chosen rationally to abide in conditions on the verge of collapse is incredibly unlikely. Again—and I need to be clear—we don't know whether that was obvious, or to whom. But AJBNJ also doesn't seem to care one way or the other: in such a case, rationality is restricted to only the information required to weigh immediate costs and benefits. Never mind if some workers might have had a foreboding about dilapidating conditions, or would have felt coerced to continue despite an awareness that proper safety wasn't a primary concern. (Never mind, all the same, if workers were intentionally deluded or kept in the dark concerning the value of their work with respect to total company profits.) In AJBNJ, rationality is much simpler. Moreover, while AJBNJ might admit in practice of additional complexities that it can't account for, in theory it doesn't.

Of course, maybe everything was just fine in Savar up until the point of impact, and maybe everyone at work that day was there on the basis of entirely rational calculations. My point is simply that we can't know that, and that AJBNJ offers no convincing evidence that we could.

Andrew M. Haines is the editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.