Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Fairtrade again

Paul Harris made a comment on my last post and pointed out Tony Payne's post on the solapanel about fairtrade. I'd already noticed it and had planned to make a comment. I thought it was worth a new post rather than just continue the discussion in the comments. Tony makes three points in his post: 1) that fairtrade may be poor economics and may do little good or even do harm and that the free market would be a better mechanism, 2) that scripture suggests that the complexity of these kind of social and economic issues means that we can't really hope to have any clear insights into how to deal with them and that 3) the church's (or perhaps he'd prefer churches') mission is to "proclaim" Christ so people hear his call to "repent, trust and serve Christ in love" , "in the fellowship of his disciples while they await his return". Here are my comments.

1) I'm not sure the economic case against fairtrade is that clear. (Another friend emailed me in respone to my previous post to make a similar comment to the one Tony makes). I am certainly no economist so I am miles outside my exepertise here (but then so is Tony I believe). However the model presented by Hays and Moore seems to me to make a reasonable case. Their argument (if I follow it) is that at the local level fairtrade organisations are a form of collective bargaining which gives them some power in the market and so aids the producers who are part of them and that on the international level buying fairtrade products is a way of making a donation to these organisations. Of course this all depends on the organisations doing what they say they do, but that is a problem we face in almost all international aid. I am surprised that Tony is as optimistic about the free market as his comment implies. I certainly am not.

2) I agree that economic and social policy questions are very complex and we seem unlikely to be able to penetrate them completely. However I am not so sure that Ecclesiastes rules out any progress in social sciences any more than it rules out progress in the physical sciences. It seems to me (again as an amateur) that the recent market instability and the challenge the Australian economy faces are being better managed than similar situations in previous years. That doesn't mean we should think we are now immune from economic disaster; but I don't think that the fallenness of the world rules out the possibility of human knowledge and its application for human good. On Tony's argument it sounds as if there would be no place for the consideration of consequences in ethics, since we could never foresee what they may be. We will never know all the possible consequences, but I think love demands that we do our best to assess possible consequences and take them into account in our decision making. We will have policy debates (such as Tony is offering in the first point) and we won't all come to the same view on them, but that does not mean there is no point thinking and talking about policy issues.

3) I can only hope that Tony is indulging in a rhetorical flourish at the end of his comment when he gives us two options — either "improving the world" or the mission of God to proclaim the gospel. "Improving the world" could cover a huge range of expectations. I'd say that the concerns of fairtrade are better captured in terms of 'loving our neighbours' than in a project of world improvement. Sometimes loving our neighbour does seem to improve the world — such as the abolition of slavery in Britain and British colonies or the eradication of smallpox. I'd rather live after each of those events than before them. Surely when people "serve Christ in love" they will seek the best for their neighbour, and to fail to be concerned for the poor and do what we can to improve their lot is to fall short of God's expectations of his people. John Dickson's exposition of James at Katoomba Easter Convention made this point very clearly (I commented on that at the time).

1 comment:

Dave Lankshear said...

Yeah, I totally hear you on John Dickon laying it all out there from KEC!

Brilliant article. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Cheers.