Vanity activism

by Rob Horning

14 December 2006


The Economist takes on the notion of socially responsible food shopping, attempting to debunk notions that buying organic or fair trade or locally grown foods in any way helps accomplish anything other than making yourself feel better. I’m actually extremely sympathetic to this position—shopping activism seems a bogus proxy for actually political power (as the editorial writer also points out) and it seems mainly a product of vicariously projecting oneself into some helpless other (a peasant farmer, a migrant worker, an animal bred for slaughter, an indigneous tribesman, etc.) in alien, complex situations created and driven by many different factors and then acting as though one’s emotional response yields all the relevant facts. One is led through moral vanity to believe that one’s own personal emotions are superior to and more significant than historical reality and the social systems that reproduce it and the conscious decision making of all those people whose lives we have no wherewithal to be making assumptions about. And our consequent actions are ultimately only about making ourselves feel good, and more powerful and influential perhaps than any individual can be, absent the tools of political power. Our own deeply felt good intentions don’t make out individual piecemeal actions free of perverse, unintended consequences (Albert O. Hirschman’s warning about reactionary rhetoric notwithstanding). Neverthess I’ll try to temper my gullibility for this species of right-wing argument in the following summary. (Brad Plumer has a nice corrective here as well.)

The editorial argues that organic food, because it is produced less efficiently, consumes more land and has the perverse consequence of destroying more of the natural environment via deforestation. (I liked this bald statement: “Farming is inherently bad for the envirnoment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale.” I don’t think, however, The Economist is advocating a return to hunting and gathering.) Fair-trade arrangements distort the price system and encourage farmers to produce goods for which there is insufficient demand, rather than diversify into viable crops. (Whether that option exists for many of these third-world farmers is not addressed—but if they must be wrung out in the market’s creative destruction processes as agribusiness consolidates, so be it.) And locally-grown food can’t help change the finding that most of the miles food travels (in England, anyway) from farm to plate occur in our cars as we drive it home from the grocery store. The editorial also points out the futility of working against comparative advantages available in food being raised the locale where it can be achieved with greater efficiency—we waste resources if we insist on ignoring those possible gains.

So in lieu of these solutions, the editorial proposes carbon taxes to address energy waste (Harvard economist and Pigovian tax crusader Greg Mankiw surely agrees) and the eradication of agricultural subsidies of all kinds (i.e. ensure real free trade in agriculture, which would be fairer—though perhaps not for some individual farmers who would be driven out of business and have nothing else to do—than matching subsidies with more subsidies in protectionist tariff wars).

Mark Thoma at Economist’s View links to an essay from the journal Democracy that asks a related question: “Can progressives really change Wal-Mart–or any other company, for that matter?” Authors Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin argue that working to make corporations behave in a socially responsible way independent of binding, state-backed law is a futile endeavor. Corporations, due to their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, will always do what is most profitable. If that course also happens to also socially responsible, then so much the better. But they won’t surrender big profits for lesser ones simply because they want to be considerate, even if they wanted to—the hierarchical organization and the spontaneous order in the economic system that distributes decision making militates against it. That’s where government can step in and let us all off the hook by reigning in the profit motive in certain instances when, unfettered, it demonstrably harms the public good. Thus we must engage with the political process to push government to achieve these goals, and dismantle governments that put forward corporate interests at the expense of the public good.

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