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Fair Trade Fast Food?

Back when I was just a pimply young 15-year-old, my parents urged me to get a job for the summer. Given today’s pesky child labor laws, my options were relatively few, but after a bit of searching, I eventually beheld on my horizon those ever-illustrious golden arches.

That’s right. The best I could get was a couple hours per day at Mickey D’s (“And no more! Per state law!”), taking orders, cleaning bathrooms, and assuming any other menial task that wouldn’t risk further restrictive legislation (“Stay away from those fryers, kid!”).

Yet despite feeling a bit limited in my opportunities, this was indeed a blessing. I was finally able to do something productive and create a semi-steady cash flow for myself. I was only making minimum wage, but this was a starta chance to develop my skills, curb some adolescent pride, and kick off a resume that might one day take me to bigger and better things.

As with any job, my responsibilities grew over time, along with my wage, culminating in an eventual promotion to shift manager. The position came with a pay bump of one dollar, which didn’t seem like much for running entire shifts, managing unruly employees, and being the sole go-to guy for calming angry soccer moms (“I said ‘no pickle,’ moron!”).

Soon thereafter, I grew less enthusiastic about my job. I felt overworked, underappreciated, and above all, underpaid. Yet this was still a good job. I was, let us remember, a punk suburban kid, limited in both skills and experience. Besides, college was a real possibility, and if there was ever a driving incentive to think outward and upward, it was my puny, unsatisfactory wage. Business was business, and even as a cocky teenager, I understood that my wage was based on authentic human needs conveyed by authentic market prices. As a Christian, I understood that my destiny was not to be limited, dictated, or defined by such prices, but nevertheless, my vocational struggle had the basic benefit of being informed.

For others, however, my contract with McDonald’s might just as well have been labeled “unjust” and “unfair.” This was not, after all, a “living wage.” Shouldn’t somebody somewhere have stepped in to fill the “gaps” and stop McDonald’s from “exploiting” me? How was I, as a mere teenager, ever to rise above my circumstances without special giveaways and rewards for my efforts? There I was, hopelessly at the mercy of those greedy, hamburger-loving Westerners (i.e. my customers). What I needed, according to some, was simply a higher wageone through which I would be “fairly” compensated and one with which I could survive while staying put.

So what, might I ask, would have happened if someone intervened? What if someone had been “compassionate” enough to pay me a little extra for my efforts, regardless of the real value being produced in the marketplace? What if, for example, a well-meaning organization—let’s call it Equal McXchange—devised a way for wealthy foreigners to pay $3 for a McChicken, instead of the usual $1? What if this same organization also decided that I was to receive 5 extra dollars per hour (Heck, why not 10!?), instead of my existing wage? Would this have threatened the competitive position of McDonald’s compared to other dollar-menu providers? (Yes!)

Would this have further limited other unskilled workers from getting entry-level jobs at McDonald’s? (Yes!) Would this have influenced my thought process about where, when, and above all, whether I might look elsewhere to further my future? (Yes!)

All of these negative ripple effects would be largely nonexistent if I had been assisted by your run-of-the-mill, direct-charity program (which yes, I did not need). Yet all of these impacts—and plenty more—are ever-present in today’s wildly popular, highly coercive “fair trade” schemes.

It may seem a bit silly to compare the “plight” of my middle-class American upbringing to that of coffee farmers in Kenya or hand weavers in India, and indeed, I have no intention of pretending my opportunities were worse than anyone else’s (I had it great!). But we must be keen to note that misaligned incentives are dangerous, no matter who you are, and I may very well have been prey to them if it weren’t for the real opportunity and subsequent hard work of those who came before me. For let us remember, although my beginnings were far easier and far more comfortable than the vast majority of humanity, they did not get this way on accident.

The American economy did not grow as it did because my parents (or their parents, etc.) received manipulative hand-outs from do-gooders across the globe. It was not by the benevolence of European aristocrats that my Italian-immigrant and Irish-immigrant great-grandfathers made a “fair wage” on the railroad, neither was it from the superior price knowledge of “socially conscious” townspeople that my Norwegian-immigrant great-grandfather was able to get a “fair” price for his beef cattle.

I could go on and on, but the story of our prosperity is clear. There was, once upon a time, such a thing as real value, and if you could find a way to offer that tiny little thing—whether at a meat packing plant (i.e. “sweat shop”) like my grandpa, or a meat delivery shop (i.e. “fast food”) like myself—the world would be a better place for you, your family, and everyone else.

My ancestors—and most likely, yourstoiled in dire conditions, breathing dirty air, working exhausting hours, and bringing in little pay. Yet their hard work and diligence, positioned in the middle of America’s chaotic, burgeoning transformation, was real and productive. Like anyone else’s, it was based on a mix of vocation and pressing family priorities, yet unlike that of many, it had the benefit of being directed and guided by real needs expressed through real prices generated by real people delivering real economic signals.

For once, the “system” was in their favor, and that system, as you know, was America.

Together, they worked through difficulty and risk to build a better place for their children, one that was authentic and sustainable, nay, progressive. And all of this—the bulk of their enduring work that allowed me to choose between working at an air-conditioned McDonald’s and sitting on the couch—was made possible by free exchange and ever-intensifying collaboration.

How dare I complain, and how dare I not take advantage of what their hard work has yielded? Further yet, how dare I pretend that similar impoverished persons across the world can’t mirror and build on such successes if given the same freedom and dignity that they were granted? How dare I pretend that I can “fix” them and their situations by rigging pricing and dishing out nothing more than glorified guilt? As a product of generations who fought so hard for tangible, sustainable progress, how dare I offer nothing to the needy but the skeleton of Western arrogance and token consumeristic nods?

The third-world may not be in the cushy position I was privileged to as a youngster, but just as noble outsiders could have thrown a wrench into my own vocational process—or that of the countless others who paved the way before me—we should be careful to keep our scheming hands out of the processes of others.

The market is, above all, a mechanism for association an d collaboration, the likes of which naturally tend toward prosperity. It will only work, however, if the resulting partnerships are authentic, viable, and valuable.

We should stop trying to make the market a machine for hand-outs and allow it to remain a channel for leg-ups. After all, it’s only fair.

Editor’s Note: This blog post is a follow-up to Joseph Sunde’s review of Victor Claar’s book, Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution.