Dr. David Cowan Second of a 3-part discussion of so-called Fair Trade and Free trade
The scale of the fair trade market is tiny compared to the global economy, and mainly offers moral indulgence to rich consumers. Supporters will deny this and say at least it’s a start. Well, yes, it’s a start, but a bad start. Firstly, it favors only those few producers who are able to enter the market. More importantly it fails to deal with the real economic problems that the country the producer is in suffers from.
The real problems are corruption in government and in communities, and legal systems that prevent entrepreneurs from rising up in the communities. There are communities where someone like Trevor would have to pay protection money, just to stay alive. There are countries business regulations are so cumbersome, it would have taken months or even years to get such a venture off the ground.
We can also ask just how good fair trade is for us, as consumers. What the front-men of fair trade are doing is getting us to consume things we don’t need, just as much as the free trade system they are critical of in the first place. A lot of the “new” products they produce are dust collectors. The quality of which is very questionable in many cases. It seems odd that fair trade campaigners attack consumerism by promoting their own, economically questionable, form of consumerism.
I was asked in a class I was teaching a while back, should we not promote local crafts like these in these poor countries? The student asking the question thought it was great that he could go to Africa and see such colorful crafts, and visit real villages. My response was swift. I don’t want to be cynical, but what we are asking consumers in America to do is become poverty tourists. We are to go to poor countries and admire their simple crafts and way of life. Maybe, just maybe, the poor we are looking at want big flat screen TVs too!
If you travel along the klongs of Bangkok, the network of rivers and poor housing of that sprawling city, you can peer into people shacks and see color TVs blaring out. They may live in poverty, but they want many of the same things we want. We don’t get these things by working on such a small scale as fair trade, we get what we want by participating in a major and complex free trade economic system. The problems we see in poor countries need sound economic solutions, not piecemeal, however well intended, solutions.
So much for the economics, what about the morality? If economically fair trade doesn’t do much to help, and there are better ways to help on a small scale, then where is the moral high ground? It is hard to see fair trade becoming the major system of trade, because it is still essentially based on Socialist principles. It aspires to be an alternative to free trade, by rejecting free trade. Can you name one successful socialist economy? It doesn’t exist. Fair trade is the economic equivalent of throwing a few cents to a beggar on the street, rather than finding a way to get the beggar off the street and back into society.
Even more perplexing, where is the faith? My concern is that fair trade is part of a secular search for economic salvation, which is what Socialism and Communism were in the last century. It is new Indulgences for a new Age. Like the Indulgences of the medieval period, reviled so much by the Reformers, fair trade till receipts are secular certificates offering rich consumers peace of mind. The poor souls are being taken care of because we have shown how much we care by buying their products. Is this cynical? No, it is being realistic.
In liberal churches, fair trade has effectively attained doctrinal status. Increasingly now, evangelical churches are promoting fair trade goods. We should not fall into this trap. I believe we should recognize an economic realism. This does not mean blessing Capitalism, it just means working with it. Historically, Capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system. Recent economic problems don’t change that, though it will mean that consumers in wealthy countries will become less prepared to pay the subsidy cost of fair trade goods.
What is confused is the notion that given a certain economic problem we ought to do a particular theological thing about it. From the premise that poverty is a bad thing we are offered specific solutions theologically blessed for the greater welfare of all, such as fair trade. The market, it can be argued, is a more efficient means to achieve a proper outcome for the rational economic actor, but this is an economic or political result not a theological one.
Christians are called to live in the world, not to set ourselves apart from it. We help the poor when we participate fully in our economy, as it is and not as we would like it to be. The economy reflects who we are, and if we don’t like what we see then don’t blame the system. The problem is the moral quality of the people. The economy is like a knife. You can use it to cut bread to share or to kill someone. It depends on the person wielding the knife.