Thomas Byrne has been slurred by his friends as an ‘evil capitalist swine’, [who would] ‘rather see people suffer’, than be brought out of poverty through these wonderful Fairtrade schemes.
And rightly so.
His arguments against Fairtrade show a fundamental misunderstanding about how a poor country develops into a rich one.
ByrneTofferings‘ main argument against Fairtrade is that it is not free trade. I’ve reproduced some below with my emphasis to illustrate where he’s gone wrong.
[Fairtrade] distorts the markets, and while it may be good for the coffee grower in the short term, it’s bad for them in the long term, it’s bad for other coffee growers who aren’t part of the schemes (because they have to sell at the same price as everyone else), and it’s bad for the consumer because it costs us more than it should. Obviously we have the choice to go elsewhere, but that necessitates that there are some producers not part of the Fairtrade group which again, hurts them.
Where ByrneTofferings goes wrong is that he assumes distorting markets is a Bad Thing. For a developing country nothing could be further from the truth.
Exporting primary materials like coffee or rubber is a precarious situation for any country to find itself in. For example, the economies of Peru and Chile nearly collapsed after their export of nitrate fertilisers was obliterated by the creation of the Haber Process in the early 20th Century, which provided a cheaper, closer and more reliable source of fertiliser.
This is why distorting markets is so important, it allows countries to move from low value-added to high value-added activities more swiftly. For example, moving from low value added coffee growing, to coffee roasting, to coffee packing and finally to high value added coffee marketing will increase people’s well being and domestic stability as the economy diversifies.
Relying on a natural resource is dangerous and waiting for your domestic economy to upgrade naturally is risky.
There are plenty of ways which Governments can distort markets to make development and domestic upgrading occur more quickly.
- For the capitalist out there, a government could grant tax exemptions or holidays to businesses engaged in capital investment. For example, tax breaks for firms that invest in new facilities rather than pay higher dividends.
- For the centrists, firms engaged in similar endevours could be encouraged to congregate in selected “special economic zones” via various subsidies. By bringing these together the government would encourage positive spillovers which would not occur without some guiding visible hand. For example, car manufactures sharing widget producers.
- For my comrades, a state firm could use tax revenues to promote full employment pushing up agregate demand and subsidise domestic demand.
Fairtrade goods are an excellent way to get money into these developing countries to allow them to undertake these sorts of endeavours. ByrneTofferings argues that it would be better to give money to a charity, but charities are accountable to their donors, not the recipients of the aid. Fairtrade puts money in pockets and channels it through productive businesses, this is the advantage it has over charity.
Fairtrade on its own will not change many lives, but coupled with an activist Industrial, Trade and Technology policy it can provide a vital step to improving the condition of those in the third world.
A reply from Thomas Byrne is here http://www.byrnetofferings.co.uk/2009/09/brief-reply-to-leftoutside-on-fairtrade.html