Self-Defeating Human Rights Policies (8): Modern Slave Redemption and Swords-to-Plowshares

“Slave redemption” is an effort to buy the freedom of women trafficked into prostitution, coerced domestic servants and other modern slaves. In essence, you offer to pay the slave-holder (the pimp for example) a price for the slave that exceeds his or her present and future value.

It’s a very controversial policy. Any individual who acquires his or her freedom in this way is obviously better off, but the policy may set up a self-defeating process:

When you have people running around buying up slaves, you help create a market demand for more slaves… It’s like paying the burglar for the television set he just stole. … The slave traders end up with more money, buying more guns and hiring more thugs to go out and take more slaves. (source)

A very similar process may take hold of another, more recent initiative. Fonderie47 is an

organization that buys AK-47s at above-market-prices in conflict zones and turns them into extremely expensive accessories, all in the name of helping Africa. Apparently, the logic is that this will increase the price of AK-47s, thereby decreasing their pervasive presence in conflict zones. (source)

Of course, and again, the very opposite is likely to occur. Gun dealers will just take in larger stocks of AK-47s – like the traffickers enslave more people – because of demand expectations and higher prices. Then they’ll find out that the guns-to-jewelry initiative can’t follow suit – and perhaps turns out to be a hype – after which the excess guns are dumped in war zones. Furthermore, even if the initiative keeps going and succeeds in bringing down the numbers of AK-47s in war zones, the dealers will just buy other weapons with the extra funds they now have thanks to the initiative.

You can read such stories in two ways, according to your pre-existing biases: either the stories teach us that marketization doesn’t solve everything and that we should tackle such problems with the use of force; or they teach us that we shouldn’t intervene in the market. What I personally learned from them is that people are very creative and human rights advocates are no exception. That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s often no substitute for structural solutions that aim for the root causes of problems.

More posts in this series here.