Fairness in Trade

I am currently working on a monograph on fairness in trade. The broad outline in chapter summaries is below. Suggestions welcome!

Fairness in Trade: The Responsibilities of Consumers, Corporations, and States

Chapter 1, Introduction: This chapter introduces the key themes and questions to be considered in the monograph. The topic of fairness in trade is not, and ought not to be considered, free-standing from related questions and topics of interest in global justice. These topics include: the nature of global injustice, individuals’ responsibilities to take ethical action in the absence of state-directed guidance or coercion, and the possibility of conflict between action for poverty relief and to improve the quality of social institutions. In this chapter, I explain the monograph’s methodological approach, which seeks to describe how participants in trade can meet requirements of mutual respect within institutional structures that are unjust. Some non-ideal theorists have described duties to transition to more ideal conditions, and provisional duties to act while non-ideal conditions persist. This theoretical distinction has yet to be used to produce persuasive normative guidelines for actors in a policy area, and the monograph seeks to fill this gap in the literature on non-ideal theory. Using this distinction between transitional and provisional duties, the monograph will describe responsibilities to address conditions of global injustice, and responsibilities to trade fairly while non-ideal conditions persist. While the former can be discharged through political action, humanitarian assistance, and other similar actions, the latter can be discharged only through decisions that arise during participation in trade.

Chapter 2, A duty to support minimally just societies: The monograph will argue for a conception of exploitation as unfair trade, which is premised on the view that there is a duty to aid others in non-ideal conditions. This chapter argues that among the responsibilities that individuals have to aid others, there is a duty to promote minimal justice in the institutions of political communities. In this chapter, I explain the requirements of ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘competency’ for a minimally just society. The relationship between a society’s achievement of minimal justice and its economic development is shown to be weak and contingent, rather than conceptual or empirically strong. Two objections are considered. First, it is objected that the argument describes too much latitude for individuals to choose which ethically deserving aims to support; effective altruists argue that it is required for individuals to maximize the effectiveness of their contributions, through selective giving to particular causes. Second, it is objected that the argument endorses conditions on the use of aid, either by directing resources to minimally just societies or by requiring recipients to use resources to improve their institutions; Brian Barry argued the use of conditionality presumes the philanthropists has rights to the resources he possesses.

Chapter 3, Exploitation in trade: This chapter argues participants in trade have provisional duties to trade on non-exploitative terms, with trading partners who do not yet enjoy the benefits of membership in a minimally just society. This is a non-exhaustive account of the requirements of fairness in trade that apply to participants. The chapter considers evidence from case studies (such as Costa Rica and Guatemala) indicating that individuals who lack the benefits of membership in minimally just societies are in a worse bargaining position, even when they interact within the same commodity markets, and therefore they receive less favorable terms of trade. In addition to this consideration of evidence, the chapter argues that ‘indirect agreements’ to trade along global supply chains are ethically significant relations between consumers and producers. In developing this liberal account of exploitation in trade, the chapter also considers alternatives from Marxian perspectives, as well as contemporary liberal accounts of ‘sweatshop labor.’ A major advantage of the view taken in this monograph is that it separates duties to address unjust conditions from provisional duties to trade fairly while unjust conditions persist.

Chapter 4, Injustices in global supply chains: This chapter further develops the argument concerning the significance of global supply chains, while advancing a methodological claim about how the global economy can be understood to be unjust. The previous chapter took the perspective of individuals (‘bottom up’ theorizing) to argue that global supply chains constitute ‘indirect agreements’ between individuals to trade goods and services. It is argued in this chapter that global supply chains can be analyzed also from the perspective of the institutions of global trade (‘top down’ theorizing). From this latter perspective, global supply chains are understood as organized social relationships between corporations, workers, and consumers that constitute ‘components’ of the institutions of the global economy. When global supply chains suffer from certain kinds of egregious moral problems, such as practices of bonded labor, the rules and over-arching structure of the global economy as a whole must be viewed as unjust in virtue of permitting such practices to take place. Corporations acting in accordance with principles of corporate social responsibility may be viewed as ‘agents of justice’ when they address these egregious problems in global supply chains, even if they do nothing to reform global regulatory structures.

Chapter 5, Fairness and trade policy: This chapter considers the role of the state in pursuing fairness in trade. In the previous chapters, the limitations of individual action and corporate action have been noted. In addition to registering concerns about the costliness of undertaking ethical action as an individual or corporate body, it is noted that consumers’ pursuit of fairness in trade and corporations’ pursuit of regulation in their global supply chains may produce negative externalities for the global poor by reducing trade with the neediest populations. This raises two important objections to the monograph’s overall argument. The first objection is that reductions in trade, particularly with the poor, is an externality that should not be tolerated. The second objection is that targetted protectionism can eliminate complicity or participation in exploitative trade and injustices in global supply chains. While the first objection insists on free trade policies, the second recommends the state pursue targetted protectionism against societies and industries that contain exploitation and injustices in production.

Chapter 6, Conclusion: This chapter concludes the monograph with reflections on the argument’s empirical presuppositions and normative premises. It argues for the view that fairness in trade is a topic that cannot be studied independently of considerations on the topic of global justice, the responsibilities of individual and corporate agents, and the relationship between poverty and social justice. Fairness in trade cannot be studied independently of the empirical literature on global trade, poverty, and development, which requires recognizing its limitations and disagreements. Finally, this chapter proposes some extensions of the monograph’s methodological claims, beyond the present study of fairness in trade.