Libertarians and Fair Trade coffee

Henry Farrell asks:

[…] why are so many libertarians opposed to fair trade coffee?

It would seem to me that fair trade coffee is fairly hard to argue with on the principles of consumer sovereignty (i.e. the claim that consumers know their own interests best, and are able to realize them through the market mechanism). If consumers want to pay a premium for coffee that has been produced ‘fairly,’ then this should be no more troubling for libertarians than consumers wanting to pay a premium for e.g. luxury chocolate (which often is made from the same basic material as very-good-but-not-horrendously-expensive chocolate), and arguably less troubling.

Then Jim Henley piles on too:

Where I was going with that when planning out the post is, if one isn’t careful, the appreciation of the ironic power of self-interest to fulfill social needs can slide into, first credulity – there’s got to be an irony in here somewhere! meaning, almost anywhere – and then decadence: mere contrarianism. At worst, contrarianism that isn’t just sloppy but smug: proud of itself for asserting ironical, “politically incorrect” claims that widely recognized beliefs and decencies are actually myths and vices. Tee hee! Look how upset everyone gets when I tell them how wrong they are to hold their comforting nostrums!

They’re both right that Fair Trade is just another form of voluntary free trade and that the hostility some libertarians express toward the idea of paying more for coffee to help poor farmers is distasteful at times. However at the risk of being one of those smug contrarians Henley dislikes so much, I’m going to defend the libertarians on this one. Partially, anyway.

The simplest reason to object to Fair Trade coffee is that it’s just a stupid name. It suggests that all other coffee is unfair and exploitative. As a sign at one coffee shop I visited put it, “Fair or Unfair? It’s that simple.” Well, it’s not that simple. And if, as I do, you think the insights of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and other economists are hard-won intellectual achievements, then a label that implicitly opposes those ideas is going to rub you the wrong way. This could have been avoided if we labeled Fair Trade as something like “Charity Coffee” instead, which would be more accurate and avoid disparaging any economic theories. But then it might not have caught on as well because buying it wouldn’t let people signal their opposition to globalization, which brings us back to why so many libertarians dislike Fair Trade in the first place.

That’s probably as far as your average capitalist goes in his reasons for disdaining Fair Trade coffee. But if you’re actually into coffee, you know that some of the smartest critiques of Fair Trade are coming from good-hearted liberals working in the industry. They’ll tell you that Fair Trade is out of step with the current market for specialty coffee.

The first complaint you’ll hear about Fair Trade is that it doesn’t do enough to encourage quality. I’ve had some very good Fair Trade coffee and I’ve had some that’s terrible; the label doesn’t promise anything. It sets a price floor without any real link to cultivating better beans or promise that the roaster knows how to handle them. Even worse, by mandating a co-op model of production, Fair Trade can reduce incentives for individual farmers to improve their crops. This may not matter if consumers are buying Fair Trade coffee just for charity, but over the long-term they may not continue paying more for the label if they’re not perceiving higher quality in the cup.

A bigger objection to Fair Trade is that it’s no longer the best deal for farmers. The Fair Trade minimum of $1.26 per green pound is often higher than commodity coffee prices but well below what premium coffee roasters will pay. For example, Counter Culture’s Direct Trade program pays a minimum of $1.60 per green pound with additional incentives for exceptional crops.

There’s much more one could say in criticism of how Fair Trade certification works; there’s no need to repeat them here but see this recent Guardian article or Kerry Howley’s excellent piece from Reason a few years ago if you’re interested.

What’s frustrating about the successful branding of Fair Trade is that it’s used as a cognitive shortcut by consumers for what qualifies as an ethical coffee purchase. I speak from experience selling coffee in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. The type of customers some libertarians enjoy mocking would often come in asking for Fair Trade beans. Sometimes I could engage them and explain that what we were offering was better than Fair Trade, that farmers got more money for the beans and the quality of the coffee was outstanding. Other times I couldn’t and they walked out for another shop, likely ending up doing less good for farmers and with a worse cup of coffee. Customers’ loyalty to Fair Trade can be just as uninformed as some libertarians’ knee-jerk opposition to it.

Here’s Jim again on why Fair Trade seems like such a bad idea to people who’ve taken to heart Adam Smith’s lesson that following one’s self-interest is often the best way to do good in the world:

[…]something like Fair Trade will seem like it should be the kind of thing where there must be a catch. Here are people trying to act out of benevolence and still getting dinner! It would make perfect sense – and be a lot of fun! – if these do-gooders were actually doing harm.

But by this point, you can start getting lazy. Like, assuming that fair-traders must be screwing up “price signals” that are the market’s way of telling poor foreign farmers to stop farming.

I’m not convinced that buying Fair Trade actively does harm, though excess production is a legitimate concern. If you’re shopping at Costco and debating between a big bag of Procter and Gamble’s regular coffee or their Fair Trade beans, you’re probably making some farmer marginally better off by choosing the latter. Fair Trade may play a useful role in mass market coffee. However if you want to pass the maximum of your purchase price onto coffee farmers, your best bet is to buy the highest quality coffee you can from roasters like Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, or Stumptown (to name the usual three, though there are many others).

In fact, it doesn’t even matter whether you care about coffee farmers or not. If you selfishly pay for quality in the cup you’re very likely buying beans that brought more revenue to them than Fair Trade would have. Adam Smith was right and so, sometimes, is the libertarian’s ironic intuition.


  1. Professional vacuums are designed with two fundamental functions in head – the elimination of
    debris of all sorts from the floor and the elimination of debris of all sorts from the atmosphere in the environment that was working.
    The particular needs were dealt with till models
    and systems were produced that could manage almost any type of
    detritus from the floor of a manufacturing organization, although the first application was tricky, to
    say the least.

  2. laptop bag says:

    Travelling once annually to get a vacation someplace on the seashore to sip on beverages that are frozen, and
    acquiring to abandon your laptop in the home, is one thing.
    Yet, all of the company travelers once a week or who hit the road monthly do not
    have that luxury. With airline travel restrictions on totes being restricted,
    and only completely expensive, it implies that the business traveler
    needs to decide on his / her laptop bags nz sensibly.
    It should be easy suit rather not only a notebook
    but various items to carry, and simply stow in the overhead or the
    seat in front.

  3. Are you exhausted from searching for coming and
    cheap outdoor furniture auckland home empty-handed?
    Do you have to settle for items that don’t meet your style?
    Finding out how to locate great cheap outdoor
    furniture auckland at a great cost is exactly what you need to do.
    In that case, this short article gives you the info that you need.

  4. Best International Money Transfers are getting to be less unusual in the United Kingdom.

    There are more reasons than ever to send money abroad,
    and lots of Britons working overseas want cash to be brought
    by regular cash transfers home. Traditional High Street banks frequently treat ever as bother trades, and don’t consistently do a good
    job with money transfers. The great news is there are more businesses you are certain to
    be able to find the one that satisfies your
    needs, and than actually that specialize in global funds transfers.

  5. curtains says:

    The drapes in a room discover the way the room feels and appears.

    There certainly are plenty of curtain designs all intended for for window types that are
    different which makes it more easy to find the proper
    curtain sort. Various variables like the dimension of the location of the window, the
    design along with the window discover the sort of curtain to
    be properly used. For a home with big windows, window blinds form among the
    most effective strategies to dress them. Select shade the fabric and patterns
    carefully. You can even have the curtains customized especially for windows that are large.

  6. Cheat for Dungeon Rampage, Dungeon Rampage Pace Booster Cheat
    (Enhance pace motion by a hundred% in dungeon.) hack gems and gold on-line Dungeon Rampage ‘
    It is new era of multiplayer games, extreme motion and distinctive gameplay make this recreation top-of-the-line MMO recreation on Fb.

  7. If you wish for to get a good deal from this piece of writing then you have to apply these strategies to
    your won webpage.

  8. psn says:

    A l’aide de ce PSN Code Generator 2015, vous prévaloir la meilleure
    possibilité de télécharger le dernier jeu de votre réseau PSN gratuitement.

  9. Right now it sounds like Movable Type is the top blogging platform available right now.
    (from what I’ve read) Is that what you are using on your blog?

  10. Louanne says:

    Respective teams have to listen to you and work on things
    to find answers. As mentioned above, this is what the majority of
    businesses focus on when they discuss a search marketing
    objective. The more that are written using keywords specific to your website,
    the higher up on the link page you will be.

  11. Mixing patterns and textures can include visual and tactile interest into a room.
    Varying textures create interest and depth in an area, while patterns
    provide a contrast to sections for example pane or furniture.
    If you’re looking to create your room look better, you will need to mix-up
    your colours and designs.

  12. When you’re considering finding a fast loan you need to be very careful to adhere to the conditions and when you can give the amount before they request for
    this. If you extend your mortgage, you may find yourself facing a snowball-effect and spending a great deal of cash on interest
    rates and extra charges.

  13. loan nz says:

    Make sure that you bring along the necessary information when implementing for personal loans nz.
    You’ll need to bring proof of identification things. You got to have
    a proper identification card, evidence of a few of your recent paycheck stubs plus banking information. Different businesses may
    require files that are different. You must not phone last to
    see everything you need with regard to documentation.

  14. My brother suggested I might like this blog. He used to be entirely right.
    This put up actually made my day. You can not believe just how so
    much time I had spent for this information! Thanks!

  15. Nonprofit businesses and they often have problem advertising since they’ve limited finances and a storefront, respectively.
    Most nonprofits possess some sort of company car (also when it’s just a member of staff individual vehicle), also it’s pretty-low-cost to market on that vehicle.
    This form of marketing not just develops comprehension and
    curiosity in the trigger the supports that are
    nonprofit, but it is also a terrific method to search for possible contributors, sponsors or donors.

  16. This is the right website for anyone who really wants to understand this topic.

    You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually
    would want to…HaHa). You certainly put a new spin on a subject which has been written about for decades.

    Wonderful stuff, just excellent!

  17. Your bridal gown is among the most critical aspects of the entire day as all eyes
    will be focused on you, the bride, and it’ll sure to be a momento you
    will treasure for many years in the future. Most people have thought the one that will allow us
    to feel our most delightful on this most special of days for decades,
    of their wedding dress. As you probably know, there are innumerable choices available today as it pertains
    to wedding gowns, so how can brides to be that are harried understand the best places to start?

    Read on for a few helpful suggestions for finding the absolute wedding dress designers that is perfect
    for you and also your big evening.

  18. Lots of money money can be saved by you in the event
    that you get a 0 % introductory APR credit card offer that enables balance transactions.
    Moving a balance from a credit card using a high rate of interest enables you
    the chance to pay that balance off much simpler while you have to be disciplined and diligent.

    Nevertheless, you need to have the ability to manage this type
    of bill consolidation, or you will not be helped by it .

  19. Feel about your future needs also, when purchasing a desktop, don’t only believe of your needs now.
    You will probably have this desktop computer for several years, thus you’ll need to get computer parts nz which will manage your potential function should you’re
    considering getting in to video or photography work.
    It really is more of an investment in advance, although it is going to save you from buying another pc also soon following this

  20. Shifting cash aboard will make people a bit nervous.

    You have a better chance of having a quality transaction to be completed, when you select a reputable business.

    A trustworthy send money online company can ensure that without pocketing cash your transfer of money abroad is in the proper rate exchange.

    That means you may not be transferring more money than you believe
    just to have it proceed to a un trustworthy company.

  21. Gemma says:

    Woah! Estoy muy cariñosa disfrutando la plantilla / tema de este
    sitio de . Es muy sencillo, pero eficaz. Muchas veces es muy duro duro para
    conseguir ese “equilibrio perfecto” entre usabilidad
    y atractivo visual. Debo decir que tienes muy buena gran trabajo con esto.
    Además, las cargas de blogs muy rápido para mí en Firefox.
    Superb Blog!

  22. Grocery shopping is a necessity everyone should encounter in life.
    It is not worse when you know when getting the grocery stores that you’ll need, you can save yourself some
    money. Executing chits in to your strategy is an effective solution to
    do that. When purchasing for grocery stores look at the following advice regarding using Converse promo code 2015.

  23. At any time you discover about an interesting opportunity to bring in income online, remember to do your
    homework before jumping in. Given the abundance of scams and enterprises that are disreputable out
    there, it isn’t that difficult to be taken for serious money.

    By reading internet reviews and forums, you will be able to sift the valid
    opportunities from the lousy ones out.

  24. From creating an original gamer ID and profile on the Xbox Live system the free Silver account
    lets basic on-line performance possible. You’re also able to generate and keep
    a list of friends as well as buddies you
    fulfill on line. You are also offered access to the Xbox
    Live Marketplace in order to obtain games presentations, and personalization choices
    to your Gamertag. This Silver account doesn’t, nevertheless, provide for
    a few games needing such for online costs.

  25. When producing goods, packaging boxes also determines
    the looks of the product and the appearance which obviously affects individuals as
    well as how they’re going to see the goods. Whenever the packaging is liked by them then it’s most likely that they
    can buy the goods. With packaging, goods will be that they could be ordered
    structurally along with combine and make things a lot easier when it comes to shipping
    and substantially in form.

  26. Obviously you would like to find the Schools in Dubai for the kids, but how does one
    do it? There are so many public, private, and hire academies around that making
    a sound decision might be challenging. To be able to locate the most appropriate match to your child, it is crucial to do some investigation. Request
    family and your friends. Move online and read reviews.

    Make sessions to notice and intend to spend moment in possible classes.

  27. Although all wireless equipment designated as 802.11 may have regular features including encryption and access-control each maker has a distinct way it’s commanded
    or got. This implies the advice that follows may look a little specialized because we can only inform you what you need
    to do not how you can take action. You ought to read the guide
    or help files that came with your equipment so as to see how
    exactly to create a mobility solutions that is secure.

  28. Tired of utilizing the outdated patterned traditional messenger bags nz?
    You would have seen hundreds or thousands of people carrying
    bags’ same fashion. At times it becomes not also easy as there’s almost no
    difference, to look for your tote from the
    others. You emerge only taking care of your tote and would have invested extra time, if you’re someone
    who travels silent often. To relieve you from that boredom, there
    are tons of trendy messenger bag which are available
    in the industry. In manufacturing these bags like fabric, linen,
    leather etc. numerous materials are found You are able to choose the correct that is Trendy
    messenger bags for your self and get discovered.
    Your cool messenger bags may be unique just as if you.
    The totes can be in truth called by you as notebook guards as
    your laptop is very protected by them.

  29. You’ve got made a decision to offer your youngster best schools
    in Abu Dhabi instruction. With so many options, how do find the proper one to fit your kid’s
    requirements? Arm yourself with a long record of inquiries the openings are to consider your priorities and start setting up appointments.
    Your kid’s education is too important not to take some time to select the match that is best.

  30. f says:

    Its not my first time tο pay a visit this website, i am visiting this website dailly
    аnd get peasant information from here daily.

  31. blinds nz says:

    Curtains have become important although they not just add to the rooms but also help
    in controlling the amount of light inside them. Palls provide seclusion and keep the perturbation, due to things that are undesirable, out of the room.
    Bedroom drapes also act in the space as sound proofers.

  32. If you recall playing typically the Don’t-Touch-the-Floor-Because-its-Lava
    game as a child, likely to appreciate this kind of sometimes busy mode which also
    carries out in components of Freeze Marking. Microsoft can make enormous strides with Minecraft on Xbox STAY and Fiat generally seems to think it can do
    the same with Roblox around the PS Vita and Ps3. Mojang previously revealed that almost all of
    the growth could be moved from the Xbox 360 system on the Console

  33. I love reading through a post that will make people think.
    Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!

  34. The Ideal Place to Install a Wireless Router Device.
    Did you object when Republican leaders used the image of rifle cross
    hairs superimposed on their opponents faces in the run up
    to the November elections as a marketing tool, an image that takes on particular
    uneasiness, given the Saturday shootings. If we used
    that signal to drive a speaker to run in the same 1000hz frequency with the same amplitude, we
    would hear that sound through the speaker.

  35. Randall says:

    What’s up Dear, are you really visiting this website on a regular basis,
    if so then you will definitely take nice knowledge.

  36. I used Star Wars, Star Trek , and Lord of the Rings all on Blu to put this to the test.

    If lightning and thunder occur at the same time then it means that the lightning is definitely very close.

    I’ll just let her work off her excess energy alone, I mutter to myself.

  37. mira aqui says:

    Hola, bueno el post,justo lo que necesitaba voy a recomendar este blog.

    :)Gracias. Saludos Cordiales.

  38. Tap into people’s lives have been, all the time to use the
    tap, tap of the quality related to people’s health,
    the tap selection is essential, how to select the tap it.
    Research in in Australia tested the things of fish smear with oil and
    implementation on body fat arrangement. All of us have an invisible
    energetic border that sets a comfort level.

  39. Vraiment sympa ce site simulation loi pinel,
    je trouve votre approche vraiment intéressante,
    Bravo pour la rédaction. je partage le lien de suite Pauline

  40. Even though new releases of Microsoft Office are not the news-worthy events
    of past years, you may have heard that Office
    2013 was formally unveiled on January 29, 2013.
    The upgraded launch of microsoft office 2010 product key happened
    by the end of February. These latest versions represent a big change in how we are able
    to consume Ms Office mainly because of the move to the cloud
    (also called cloud computing).

  41. Ultra-sound scans are used commonly throughout pregnancy.
    They are able to assess whether or not it has any
    abnormalities or Down’s syndrome and the position of the placenta, when the baby arrives.
    Pregnancies can be detected by tests. This really is when the embryo connects outside the womb into a oviduct, ovary.
    Where the baby is upside-down births can be also detected by them.
    In this instance cesarean would be needed by mom.
    Expectant mothers may pick a private ultrasound scan to get
    a second view. Or they may want a private radiology that comes with a package of photos, DVDs CD
    ROM or USB drive.

  42. trailers says:

    Vessel trailers are very important business and for all those folks
    whose life calls for trading in water. The sorts of trailers that you can get in the market vary
    quite diversely in fashions, layouts, shapes and variety of cost.

    You will find basically two different types of boat nz trailers that are widely popular
    in the marketplace. They are bunk water vehicles and curler vessel.
    Out of those two trailer designs berth models are considered not inferior for
    riveted metal frame as well as for their slender hulls. However, both the trailers nz designs can be easily supported
    by the majority of the boats. Pontoon vehicle layouts are well-accepted all around the globe.

  43. http says:

    Most of the girls are choosing the basic sheepskin slip
    shoes, as they are comfortable and stylish.
    You should always seek advice from someone who has purchase
    the original boots before. A new kind of wire
    mixed with natural fabrics, like cotton, provided the perfect adjustment to the

  44. computer says:

    It is no secret that computer games are only for youngsters.
    Today, grownups are regarded as equally as significant (and often considerably more significant) about
    gaming as kids are. Regardless of how old or how young you’re, should
    you like computer games, a great thing to get is a gaming computer.
    Gambling computers, for the most part, aren’t
    much distinctive from computers that are routine.
    There are, however, several differences that are
    distinct. Among the biggest differences is in the
    quality of the equipment, as gambling -computers require top-of-the-line parts that may adapt
    the latest graphics produced by the gambling firms.
    Top end functions like audio speakers that are superior, bigger hard disks, and faster processors also make gaming computers a lot
    more costly than computers.

  45. I have learn several excellent stuff here. Definitely value bookmarking for revisiting.
    I surprise how much effort you place to make the sort of fantastic informative website.

  46. As said prior to the General Sherman of trees of
    its kind could not be bought at a plant nursery.

  47. Chandra says:

    Hi colleagues, how is all, and ԝhat yօu want to say concerning this
    paragraph, in my view its truly awesome in support of

  48. moda says:

    Most of the girls are choosing the basic sheepskin slip shoes, as
    they are comfortable and stylish. You should always seek advice from someone who has purchase the original boots before.
    Wearing an elegant UGG boot with tight jeans can give you a classy and beautiful


  1. […] and, unless I’ve lost track, libertarian Jacob Grier makes a qualified defense of attacks against “fair trade,” specifically fair-trade coffee. […]

  2. […] Some valuable thoughts on Fair Trade coffee. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Sordid LinksA Sordid LinkBarely Sordid Links […]

  3. […] Libertarians and Fair Trade coffee The simplest reason to object to Fair Trade coffee is that it’s just a stupid name. It suggests that all other coffee is unfair and exploitative. […]

  4. […] silly those times were. Fair trade coffee is also a farce, but I won’t get into that here. Read this excellent piece by Jacob Grier and make up your own mind on that […]

Leave a Comment