Cesar Chavez Saves Workers From Being Poisoned. He’s a Hero?

Cesar Chavez saves workers from being poisoned. He’s a hero?

From: B
Sent: Monday, April 23, 2018 12:37 PM
To: wblock@loyno.edu
Subject: Migrant farm workers

Dear Prof. Block,

Recently, I had an interesting encounter which I would like you to help me assess in light of our common views on libertarianism.

Last week I attended an accepted college student day with my daughter at the University of Wyoming. (I note as an aside that my daughter made it clear to me that she was not interested in studying economics in college, and therefore she did not follow up on your generous invitation from last year to apply to study with you at Loyola.)

At the college event, we met the parents of an accepted student from California. Both the parents (and their parents as well) had been migrant farm workers from Mexico who eventually became naturalized citizens to the United States. The parents that I met said that they had started at a young age working in California vineyards picking grapes for both domestic consumption and export. They indicated that while picking grapes, the fields were often sprayed with pesticides from the air, even as the farm workers were working in the fields. They said that many of the workers would emerge with blisters and rashes on their arms from the poisonous chemicals. They credited Cesar Chavez and California legislators with eliminating the practice of spraying fields that would expose farm workers to this hazard (and also outlawing younger children from working in the fields).

My thoughts about the child-labor aspects are probably similar to yours: it beats the alternative, starvation. And the parents that I met readily admitted that they willingly worked in the vineyards in order to earn extra cash, even as their parents disapproved of their choice. (Honestly, it sounds like a horrible job.)

However, with respect to the pesticide-spraying issue, I am having a hard time understanding how to reconcile this in light of our beliefs. I do not doubt the veracity of the story told to me by the parents.

1. From a strictly humanitarian perspective, I have a hard time understanding how a human being could consciously choose to drop poison on fields in which other humans are toiling and which would clearly cause them harm. However, you and I both know that capitalism does not ensure that there will be no bad actors in the market, but the market is the best way of weeding them out (in a manner of speaking).

2. From a legal point of view (yes, I am a lawyer), this seems to be a tort which is (was) actionable by the workers. I find it incredible that companies would expose themselves to liability by directly causing harm to their employees. (I did ask whether they were 1099 workers or W-2 employees, and they replied that they were seasonal employees of Dole.) The spraying might have been done by the farmers and not Dole, but still it seems as though there would have been a lot of legal exposure as well as bad PR for the companies.

3. The parents were clearly grateful that Chavez and California legislation intervened to change these practices, which I understand. But this is not a satisfactory result from my perspective. While I do not necessarily view this as an example of market failure, I am having a hard time thinking through how the free market could have worked to stop these objectively bad practices that caused harm to others.

Your thoughts on this would be most welcome.


Dear B: There are externalities, and internalities. In the former case, A impinges upon B’s rights, and they are not contractually related (pollution is an example of trespassing smoke particles). In the latter case, A seemingly impinges upon B’s rights, and they are indeed contractually related, and, therefore, there really is no impingement. Consider the following case. A hires B to test his new jet plane. Testing new jet planes is a perilous business. B does so, and crashes. Is A a murderer? Of course not. A and B made this contract, knowingly. B was fully aware of the dangers, and, presumably, was paid additionally to bear this extra risk. You even mention this very point: “(they) readily admitted that they willingly worked in the vineyards in order to earn extra cash.”

I infer that there must have been some reason for spreading these pesticides while the workers were present. They were paid additionally to bear the risk of disease, blisters and rashes.

So, the evil Cesar Chavez took away from these workers an option they preferred: bearing the risk of disease, blisters and rashes for a higher salary, and left them with one they did not prefer: not bearing the risk of disease, blisters and rashes and earning a lower salary.

Boxing, picking up garbage, wallowing in sewers, washing dishes are all jobs that have negative repercussions. People who engage in them earn more money than would otherwise be the case, given their skills. Labor economists sometimes call this phenomenon compensating differentials. Your pesticide example is only an extreme case of this. I hope and trust my comment is of help to you.


9:43 pm on June 12, 2018