Cardus’ Robert Joustra rightly pillories “fair trade” along with the logic of foreign aid in a challenging article, “Fair Trade and Dead Aid: ‘My Voice Can’t Compete with an Electric Guitar.’”
Joustra’s point of departure is sound: “The aid model is not working, and no large-scale cash infusion or debt forgiveness scheme is going to make it suddenly start working. The fair trade brand is too small-scale and ultimately regressive.”
Unfortunately, though, Joustra’s well-placed critique of the fair trade movement underestimates the scope of the movement’s vision. With regard to coffee, for instance, Global Exchange has called for “a total transformation of the coffee industry, so that all coffee sold in this country should be Fair Trade Certified.”
The logic of fair trade in fact requires such wholescale paradigm shifts. But Joustra critiques the movement in part because it does not, on his view, represent the needed “long-term substantive critiques of the global social and political architecture.”
Joustra conclude that “as long as our consciences are salved by feel-good coffee branding and knee-jerk check writing campaigns, we won’t take the hard look we need at the architecture of global capitalism and bring about the social innovation that is necessary for genuine architectonic reformation.”
The problem with fair trade is not that it is not a comprehensive alternative to so-called global capitalism. It is that undermines the proper functioning of the market by artificially manipulating the price mechanism, resulting in all kinds of negative consequences, some of which Joustra notes, promoting “unprofitable work, and subsidizing unprofitable and undiversified economies.”
The critical questions that remain for Joustra and others are these: Does the proposed architectonic alternative to the current system properly value the role of markets or not? Do the corporatist and governmental abuses of “global capitalism” (e.g. subsidies, price fixing, and so on) need to be addressed, or are the philosophies of fair trade and aid not sufficiently communitarian? Is the basic problem free trade and liberal economic globalization itself or the distortions thereof?
Update: Robert Joustra cogently addresses my questions. His answers, in part:
First, I believe capitalism, particularly coupled with the rule of law in a culture of virtue and long-term’ism, is a sound economic system. But our capitalism has degraded to an obsession with utilitarian short-term materialism. Some are apt to blame the system, but consumerism is nothing new – the scale which modernity enables us to practice it on is. That can entice us to be overly critical of the system which facilitates it, but I remain convinced that the deep “sites” of resistance to global consumerism are not our politics or our institutions, but our homes, churches and grocery stores. Politics, as they say, is downstream of culture and our culture is saturated with short-term materialism.
I find very little with which to quibble in these answers. Read the whole thing.