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Ethics and economics.

The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism

Jonas Norgaard Mortensen

Frederiksvaerk, Denmark: Boedal Publishing, 2014 (132 pages)

Danish author Jonas Norgaard Mortensen offers in The Common Good, as the subtitle indicates, an introduction to the social/philosophical perspective of personalism. Mortensen's political experience includes "head of communications at the Danish Youth Council, secretary general of the Christian Democratic party... leading and developing projects concerned with dialogue, democracy, and development in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria" during the Arab Spring, and "chief of communication in the Christian Trade Union Movement in Denmark," all while "running his own lecture and consulting business." Apparently, all while also reading a considerable number of works of contemporary philosophy and political thought.

In the introduction to his book, Mortensen makes the goal of the book plain:
The book's thesis is that we have created a depersonalized society--a
society which is increasingly moving away from the very basics, from
the close relations between dignified humans engaged in their
communities, replacing such things with ideology, economics, systems,
institutions. The result is an ever greater mistrust of our fellow
citizens and of society itself. This mistrust causes a meltdown of
society and leaves us unable to handle the serious challenges we face.

The goal of The Common Good, then, is to "outline the potential contributions of personalism in this situation." The book is introductory and formatted like a textbook; it "makes no pretense of treating its themes and problems exhaustively." Given that qualification, I would, with the following reservations, recommend the The Common Good to teachers who want an accessible introduction to personalism, so long as they are able to address its shortcomings in class discussion or with other readings.

The book is divided into the following four chapters: "The Relational Human," "The Engaged Human," "The Dignified Human," and "Challenges to Personalism," which also serve as a good summary of the essential components of personalism to Mortensen: relationality, social action, and human dignity. In addition to his accessible writing style (hampered only, unfortunately, by occasional typos), The Common Good features informational boxes throughout, profiling basic concepts and a diverse array of major figures in the personalist tradition, such as Nicholas Berdyaev, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Luther King Jr., Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Max Scheler, and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) among others. Mortensen writes from a religiously neutral perspective while nevertheless acknowledging the importance of theism of various types for many personalists. In addition, he helpfully ends the book with a brief history of the origins of the concept of the person in the Trinitarian theological debates of the early Church.

The major shortcomings of the book involve two recurring oppositions, namely personalism versus liberalism and personalism versus capitalism. While admirably advocating for the dignity and freedom of the individual and political decentralization, Mortensen does not seem to be able to admit that these commonalities make the personalism he describes a species of liberalism and capitalism, not an alternative. This evinces, as well, his misunderstanding of both of these terms. Liberalism is so broad a tradition as to include both Edmund Burke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Capitalism, as a general economic system, includes both F. A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Of course, these include many figures that fall between (and beyond) these poles.

The effects of this misunderstanding are seen in broad statements that conflate liberalism and atomistic individualism or capitalism and consumerism. These abuses, however, do not accurately represent either liberalism or capitalism. For example, note the following from Frank H. Knight, one of the founders of the Chicago school of economics: "The individual cannot be a datum for the purposes of social policy, because he is largely formed in and by the social process, and the nature of the individual must be affected by social action." Knight would agree with Mortensen that individuals do not exist in isolation but are profoundly formed by their relationships with others. While Knight agrees that taking the individual as given is a common error of liberalism, he also writes, "in the nature of the case, liberalism is more 'familism' than literal individualism. Some sort of family life, and far beyond that, some kind of wider primary-group must be taken as they are, as data, in free society at any time, until they change or are changed...into other forms." Such counterexamples could be easily multiplied from a vast variety of liberal and capitalist authors. Mortensen's presentation in this case is not simply too inexhaustive: It is also misleading and inaccurate.

What seems to emerge is a resistance to man as homo economicus (economic man). While I agree that reducing human beings to rational utility maximizers is depersonalizing, conversely failing to acknowledge the economic aspect of our nature properly is dehumanizing. To coin a few terms, instead of homo non economicus (non-economic man), what is needed for a fuller picture is homo supra economicus (more than economic man). The former could indicate the latter, if it was taken to mean "not [merely] economic man," but that is not the picture that emerges from The Common Good.

The latter case (homo supra economicus), however, has been made in the last twenty years by none other than a group of scholars who, in fact, have identified as economic personalists--for example, Gregory R. Beabout, Edward O'Boyle, Ricardo F. Crespo, Peter Danner, Patricia Donahue-White, Daniel K. Finn, and Gloria L. Zuniga among others--and who acknowledge antecedents within the liberal tradition. While Mortensen briefly highlights the distributism of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc as built on personalist premises (which it is), he fails to engage or even note the significant body of work of those who see personalism as augmenting, rather than opposing, capitalism and liberalism. Perhaps a second edition could temper these too-sharp dichotomies that do not reflect the nuance and care of the rest of the book.

One opposition in The Common Good turned out to be enlightening though: personalism versus existentialism. One reason this opposition is better is that Mortensen more readily admits that there is significant overlap between the two and more of a difference of emphases than fundamental incompatibility. That difference of emphases caught my attention: (1) "Existentialism views the surrounding world as meaningless and hostile, whereas personalism sees the world as fundamentally meaningful"; (2) "Whereas for existentialism the Other is an enemy...personalism sees others as friends"; (3) "For existentialism, the goal and the norm is freedom; for personalism, it is the good of individual, community, and society alike."

While Mortensen's goal is to promote personalism over or against existentialism, he instead convinced me that both touch on significant aspects of reality as we know it: birth (and hence relation) and death. No one is born into Locke's state of nature--his variety of liberal anthropology would be at odds with personalism. Instead, we are born to a mother and a father, into families, communities, and societies. This is basic to all human existence and deserves the emphasis accorded to it in personalist philosophy and social thought.

Nevertheless, to borrow a phrase from Richard John Neuhaus, we are also "born toward dying." We are mortal--and not just individuals, but marriages, families, communities, and societies die as well. Although born with the dignity of "children of the Most High," to quote the psalmist, we all "die like men" (Ps. 82:6-7 NKJV). The existentialists are right to bring to our attention the haunting mystery of nothingness, meaninglessness, and chaos. It is the problem of evil, and it is a problem for everyone that cannot be solved by being ignored or rationalized away.

The contribution of the gospel, above and beyond both of these, is not a way to cheat death, but rather that "we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (2 Cor. 4:11 NKJV). Our philosophy and social policy ought to reflect the realities of relation and dissolution, and Mortensen does a good job, all things considered, introducing and exploring the former. Yet beyond that, from a theological perspective, Christians ought to be able to offer even more. Although we must do all we can to attend to our infinite dignity and sadly finite existences, we must also know our need for grace and the hope of the resurrection.

--Dylan Pahman

Acton Institute, Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich

Ndongo S. Sylla

David Clement Leye (Translator)

Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014 (179 pages)

This new book by Ndongo Sylla is an insider's critique of the fair trade model as practiced by Fairtrade International (FLO, or Fairtrade Labelling Organizations). (The book has been translated from French, and I found the translation to be quite readable and engaging.) Based on his own experiences working for FLO, Sylla seeks to point out the flaws in the fair trade system. As with most research about fair trade, Sylla's focuses primarily on the fair trade coffee initiative. In the fair trade coffee system, cooperatives of small coffee growers pay thousands of dollars to FLO to join the network and for compliance fees. In exchange for ethical production, the growers receive a guaranteed minimum price for each pound of their coffee sold as "fair trade."

In chapter 1, "On the Inequalities of the International Trade System," Sylla articulates what he perceives to be the inherent injustices of the current system of international trade. Sylla is rightly critical of the slanted trade policies faced by the world's poorest. His arguments here channel similar themes expressed by Stiglitz and Charlton in Fair Trade for All: How Trade Can Promote Development (Oxford UP, 2006). For Sylla, the poor cannot compete on a level footing with developed nations engaging in protectionist policies. Indeed, Sylla refers to policies such as the subsidies paid by the United States to its own cotton growers as a form of "dumping" (28). Sylla also notes that while the United States is relatively open to trade with already rich nations, it exacts the largest tariffs from its poorest trading partners. For example, citing data from the Progressive Policy Institute, Sylla observes that the United States collects more tariff revenue from Cambodia and Bangladesh than it does from England and France (31).

In the chapter, "The Fair Trade Universe," Sylla describes the origins of the fair trade movement as well as its current operations. Sylla's accounting in this section is first-rate. For starters, the author carefully distinguishes between the commodity-driven model practiced by FLO and the Alternative Trade Organization (ATO) model. While the FLO model provides modest price supports for common agricultural commodities produced in the FLO network such as coffee, tea, sugar, and bananas, the ATO model seeks to connect poor producers of unique products with consumers who would not otherwise find them. (Ten Thousand Villages is probably the best-known ATO.)

An especially helpful feature of chapter 2 is the author's classification of the work of FLO into four broad categories of activity: (1) sensitization (making the case for fair trade), (2) guaranteeing quality (ensuring that certified fair trade products have been produced under the advertised conditions), (3) organizing and building the capacities of producers (orchestrating production among various international sources), and (4) coordinating the movement (setting standards, setting prices, and disseminating information). Sylla concludes the chapter by describing the competition faced by FLO for its fair trade certified products from other forms of "caring" certification, such as Rainforest Alliance certified coffee.

In chapter 3, Sylla itemizes and critiques the prevailing "Controversies Around Fair Trade," noting that critics of fair trade usually evaluate it along five possible lines: (1) its distributive impact (whether the poorest benefit most), (2) its allocative efficiency (whether the producers create the most value), (3) the efficiency of its transfers (how much of the premium paid by consumers gets to poor producers), (4) its control systems (including corrections of abuses), and (5) its effectiveness relative to other strategies.

The most intriguing aspect of chapter 3 is its dismissal of nearly all assessments by mainstream economists that evaluate fair trade initiatives along the five lines given above. Sylla has no patience with arguments made by those he regards as blinded by their "neoliberal" ideology, insinuating that their body of scholarship as it regards fair trade cannot be taken seriously. He writes, for example, that "[n]eoliberal critics... lost a great deal of credibility when... they shamelessly and deliberately publicised alternative companies or approaches in what were presented as 'academic' documents" (71). In this section, Sylla ridicules what I regard to be several strong pieces of scholarship, including at least one that I cite in my book, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution (2010). Sylla is kinder to "neoliberal" critics when he likes the answers they provide. For instance, the author respects mainstream research that identifies unintended distributional consequences of the fair trade model.

In the subsequent chapter, which constitutes the heart of the book, Sylla makes his main argument: "Fair Trade is an unsuitable response to poverty in the South, as it very much relies on free market logic" (86). Although Sylla is no champion of the free market, his "Redeeming the Free Market as a Solution to Poverty: The Limitations of the FT Model" skillfully points out the flaws in the argument made by fair trade advocates that fair trade is a form of market-based justice and poverty reduction. First, Sylla accurately notes that the dollar amounts guaranteed to growers, whether in the form of the guaranteed minimum price or the social premium, are simply not determined by market forces. Instead they are rather arbitrarily determined, as evidenced by FLO's recent doubling of the social premium paid per pound from 10 to 20 cents. The social premium is intended to be used for projects in villages and is paid regardless of whether the market price of coffee is above or below the minimum price per pound guaranteed for fair trade coffee. At the same time, fair trade prices and premiums cannot be so high that they significantly reduce the willingness of northern consumers to purchase those coffees at retail. Thus the viability of the fair trade system demands that it appear generous to the poor, but it cannot afford to be too generous.

Beyond this, Sylla brings the dirtiest secrets of the fair trade movement into the light. For example, and as I also point out in Fair Trade?, there is no guarantee made to certified growers that they will be able to sell 100 percent of their fair trade harvests to their partner buyer(s) on the other side of the market. Fair trade importers are under no such obligation. Consequently, growers in the fair trade network dump vast quantities of their coffees each year into the conventional coffee market. Under such circumstances a cooperative's significant investment in joining the fair trade network must be viewed as a speculative investment opportunity and, like any other, it may or may not pay off over the long term.

To close the book, Sylla uses the fifth chapter, "Looking for the Global Impact of Fair Trade," to assess whether fair trade is making a difference in the lives of the poor it claims to help. Again, though no free trader, he levels indictments similar to those I make in Fair Trade?.

Sylla concludes that fair trade is not helpful to its intended beneficiaries on balance. Referring to data presented earlier in the book, Sylla contends that poor nations simply cannot grow rich in a global economy if they remain shackled to commodity-based production that requires few tools and little skill. As a result, fair trade cannot be counted on to bring about lasting progress. Instead, he argues that poor nations achieve sustainable progress when they invest in a broader range of economic activities. He also notes that fair trade partnerships do not take hold in the poorest nations; instead the greatest shares of fair trade goods are produced by precisely those who are already positioned to produce high-quality coffees at low cost. In short, FLO is not going out of its way to provide assistance to those most in need of it. To make matters worse, most of the revenue from fair trade coffee simply does not end up in the hands of the producer organizations. Sylla claims that "for each dollar paid by American 'consum actors' to purchase an FT product, 3 cents of 'additional income' are transferred to the South" (125). Of course, the rest of the fair trade network has no good reason to trumpet these meager results: The earnings of FLO, its for-profit importers and roasters, and commercial outlets all depend critically on the volume of fair trade sales.

Because of the book's antimarket flavor, it reminds me of Fridell's 2007 book, Fair Trade Coffee: The Prospects and Pitfalls of Market-Driven Social Justice. Fridell is no fan of fair trade either but would prefer to see a return to the heady days of a strong International Coffee Agreement--an arrangement that established a production quota for each grower nation in an effort to artificially boost world prices.

The Fair Trade Scandal, as well as Fridell's book, would make excellent reading for those who have read arguments such as my own regarding the ineffectiveness of fair trade yet remain skeptical. Although written from diverse perspectives, none of these analysts has much good to say about fair trade.

--Victor V. Claar

Henderson State University, Arkansas

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play

James C. Scott

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012 (169 pages)

Most of what each of us does in our everyday lives relies on forms of organization and cooperation that are not centrally directed. People find a way to get along. We are hardwired to cooperate when it is in our long-term self-interest. In James C. Scott's book Two Cheers for Anarchism, six chapters provide us with twenty-six fragments designed to develop in the reader what Scott calls an "anarchist's squint" on the world. Scott shows us how much we already do without the state and how much we achieve through "mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule" (xii).

Seeing like an anarchist takes practice, and Scott's book can be read as a devotional, guiding us into that practice. "[I]f you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost every other angle" (xii). Scott's anarchism is process oriented, like Robert Nozick's approach to constraining the state.

Scott's methodology relies on a mechanism such as an invisible hand that guides social phenomena; the reader should not be deterred by the word anarchism in the title. Scott makes no claim to nihilist anarchism, though he leans toward left-anarchism and explicitly rejects the anarcho-capitalist fad. Scott's anarchism is not like David Friedman's project that tries to demonstrate how we can restructure society without a state. He comes closer to joining the likes of Peter Leeson and Peter Boettke by employing anarchism as a benchmark for positive comparative institutional analysis. The state Scott is concerned with is the same as that addressed in Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Wiengast's Violence and Social Orders, entailing all those institutions--formal and informal--that constitute the status quo that buttresses the capitalized interests.

In chapter 1, "Disorder and 'Charisma,'" Scott shows us the subversive potential of anarchist movements--in particular, the movement without a central organization: the wildcat strike, the draft-dodgers, the foot-draggers, and the saboteurs who practice spiteful infra-politics against the elites to whom they are accountable. "A demonstration, even a massive one, with leaders was one thing, a rioting mob was another. There were no coherent demands, no one to talk to" (18). Politics is exchange, but a collectivist movement with no decision makers is not doing politics. It is destroying the existing order.

Imagine an omnibus bill that simultaneously repeals the many wealth-transferring tax and subsidy programs that generate rent-seeking opportunities for politicians and special interests. Total social welfare would increase overnight as deadweight losses transformed into real surpluses. The political difficulties inherent in the transitional process are what prevent such omnibus reforms. Outright disorganized rebellion would sidestep the political process and accomplish the transition.

Unfortunately, Scott fails to see that each of these actions is ultimately destructive and a negative-sum game. Other left-anarchists have identified better ways to practice subversion. Mark Van Steewyk, in That Holy Anarchist, directs us toward the politics of Jesus in praxis. Radical hospitality, sacrificial altruism, and frugality are redemptive acts that preserve a healthy spiteful attitude toward the state. People will drag their feet, will toss sawdust into the gears, will lie on their tax returns, and will defect their obligations quietly and selfishly. But the individual who pays her taxes, and then works to end poverty through direct donations, like sharing her home with the needy, ultimately does more to effect the end of poverty than the rebel.

In chapter 2, "Vernacular Order, Official Order," Scott shows us that different problems may call for different levels of organization. Subsidiarity is illustrated by the naming of roads. It is practical for a local villager to talk about driving up old Durham Road from home one day, but when an ambulance is needed, one better identify Route 77 and the mile marker because there is more than one road leading into Durham. Local knowledge is insufficient for securing help from outside.

However, "[t]he order, rationality, abstractness, and synoptic legibility of certain schemes of naming... lend themselves to hierarchical power" (34). There are technologies and lexicons for control, and others for resistance, as Eli Dourado has shown. These will always abide in some tension because there will always be particularities of time and place--local knowledge in the Hayekian sense--that resist control, even as economies of scale create pressure toward centralized control. Planning is necessarily parasitic on a preexisting productive informal order.

One of the interesting things that left-anarchists bring to the table is an understanding that we are weak volitional individuals. In chapter 3, "The Production of Human Beings" Scott says that "[a]ny activity we can imagine, any institution, no matter what its manifest purpose, is also, willy-nilly, transforming people" (67). The methodological individualist bristles against such talk. We want each of the agents in our models to be rational and, though we never say it, responsible--none of this "formation of the self" squishy talk.

Still, it is healthy to ask, with Scott: "Are the authoritarian and hierarchical characteristics of most contemporary life-world institutions--the family, the school, the factory, the office, the worksite--such that they produce a mild form of institutional neurosis?" (79). Scott wants us to be aware that hierarchy tends to "produce a more passive subject who lacks the spontaneous capacity for mutuality" (80). Scott prescribes an anarchist calisthenics in which we are encouraged to intentionally break a senseless law on occasion for the formation of individuals who then are equipped for deliberative democracy and resistance to tyranny.

In chapter 4, we find Scott joining with Deirdre McCloskey and Jane Jacobs in raising up "Two Cheers for the Petty Bourgeoisie." Scott dignifies the petite bourgeoisie because they "represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom... [that] are, along with mutuality, at the center of an anarchist sensibility" (85). The ethic of the shopkeeper is to look out for her customer. Jacobs is praised for noting how urban neighborhoods formed a nexus of relationships such that there were "eyes on the street" reducing the need for official policing entities. A walk to the store deterred more crime than a cop on the beat. Anarchy in this sense is mutuality and community through which the petty bourgeoisie provides many of the public goods necessary for creating the "building block[s] of social solidarity and public action" (99).

Scott is an analytical egalitarian. Models and measurements used in economics are prone to the advancement of pointy-headed ideas provided by experts. Chapter 5, "For Politics," is Scott's defense of the deliberative process of democracy in contrast to rule by experts. Experts love nothing more than to quantify their results, he observes--except perhaps to measure the citations to their publications. In resistance to experts, we need to amplify the voices of the public. Rule by experts can lead to horrors, such as eugenics, so a deliberative space is essential to keeping experts in check.

In Scott's final chapter, "Particularity and Flux," we see Adam Smith's understanding of sympathy leading to an anarchist squint against the state. Experts operate in terms of abstractions and so do states. Someone may advocate for a government program to help the poor or for insurance to farmers or for the creation of jobs. In the abstract, solutions to these problems will always appear to be too big for the individual to do anything about. However, programs are inflexible, and oftentimes unnecessary when the particulars are made known. Neighborly assistance works better to elucidate sympathy among people. Scott tells the story of Huguenots in Vichy, France, who provided refuge to Jews who were escaping the Nazis. Many neighbors were unwilling to pledge aid in advance, but when faced with a family in need of a meal, the neighbors sympathized and became committed for the duration. Sympathy arises when the particular irrupts and direct personal action is able to respond with flexibility in contrast to the cold administrative dispensations the state can dole out.

Scott's book has many errors, but his case-study squints are better than the economist's usual models that capture insights but never bear out practically. Ronald Coase said he wanted to understand what actually happens in the real world. Two Cheers for Anarchism provides such useful squints at anarchic systems solving everyday problems through mutuality and cooperation.

The anarchism that Scott shows us is quaint, mundane, and generally constructive. It is part of that common grace that sustains us. We learn from his squinting to hesitate before saying, "There ought to be a law!" in any particular circumstance but, instead, to investigate, in the manner that Elinor Ostrom taught us, how it is that people are coordinating to overcome a problem without the help of the state.

--Nathanael D. Snow (e-mail:

George Mason University, Virginia
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Title Annotation:The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism; The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich; Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play
Publication:Journal of Markets & Morality
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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