The Economics of Fair Trade

David Koyzis has opened a discussion about this essay from the Action Institute regarding the economic validity of fair trade practices as they apply to the coffee industry. I’ve already added my two pence to the discussion on Dr. Koyzis’ site, and I need to do more homework to write anything further. I do, however, want to underscore one comment from the discussion, from Pantagruelist Caleb Stegall:

The error both fair traders and Acton fall into is the same, and it isn’t an economic error but a moral failing. Both arrogantly assume that a subsistence peasantry is a mean and ugly thing and a blight on the modern enlightened world. Both seek to destroy said peasantry either by enslaving them to markets or entitlements.

There’s much truth to that. Two things in response. First, as I said in the discussion, I’d rather err on the side of the fair trade model than the free market model. In the end, even if the farmer’s become enslaved to entitlements, they’re likely better off. Second, I think there are ways to work within the Fair Trade model without rearranging the culture of farming within the communities. Companies like Dean’s Beans focus on doing what the farming communities need, not what the company thinks the communities need.