Exhibit 1: In order to stop funds from going to African “murderous militias”, Congress passed a law requiring U.S. companies to make sure they don’t buy minerals from mines controlled by them. Instead of choking their funds, the law so impoverished the miners that they have no choice but to work for the militias directly.
Exhibit 2: Fair Trade keeps farmers poor by preventing them from switching to more valuable crops.
Exhibit 3: Boycotting manufacturers that use sweatshops sends sweatshop workers back to subsistence farming.
Since we assign responsibility to the individual in order to influence his action, it should refer only to such effects of his conduct as it is humanly possible for him to foresee and to such as we can reasonably wish him to take into account in ordinary circumstances. To be effective, responsibility must be both definite and limited, adapted both emotionally and intellectually to human capacities.F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty
We hold the man culpable who gives money to terrorist organizations, but not the man who buys oil whose revenue funds a terrorist organization. In other words, the supply chain is outside of his ordinary moral purview, just the same as we wouldn’t hold Hitler’s mother accountable for the holocaust. The deeds of children are outside the parents’ moral purview, even if they are “responsible” in some causal sense.
The problem with supply chain activism is that it assumes an impossible intellectual burden. It is a culpable conceit: embarking on a project without the knowledge necessary to avoid doing harm. General equilibrium teaches us that all prices are connected. A change in one reverberates throughout the system, and it’s impossible to predict who will benefit and who will lose. Even the effects after only one or two steps are difficult to see, as the three exhibits show. It is almost certain that someone you do not wish to support will benefit from any change in your purchasing habits. Once you assume the responsibility of scrutinizing the supply chain, you commit yourself to doing the impossible, and must (therefore) refrain from any purchase at all. As long as there are immoral people in the world, the only moral course of action is autarky, lest your money go to support their immorality.
Furthermore, it makes no difference whether the trigger is coercive or voluntary, though (obviously) much more harm can be done with a law. Exhibit 1 was a law, Exhibit 2 was entirely voluntary, and Exhibit 3 is just as true either way. It is true that subjectivism requires us to withhold judgment on voluntary activities. We have to concede that the self-satisfaction of the fair trade buyer is ultimately worth more in dollar terms than whatever well-being has been lost by coffee farmers as a class.
But this self-satisfaction is based on an incorrect chain of reasoning: More expensive goods, therefore, better-off farmers. Boycott Nike, prevent them from employing sweatshop workers, therefore, better-off workers. If people bought fair trade coffee and boycotted Nike knowing that the farmers and workers would be made worse off as a whole, we would call their vice hate, rather than conceit, and we would send the preacher rather than the economist to correct it. But as it is, we can hope that revealing the inconsistency of supply chain activism with its stated ends will be sufficient to do so.
So the next time someone tries to get you to boycott a company that uses sweatshops, or supports some cause you don’t like, or whatever country we just noticed is terribly unjust, don’t be fooled into accepting a morality by which you can only be condemned. There’s no forgiveness for consequentialist sins; only the exculpation provided by a definite and limited moral purview, adapted emotionally and intellectually to human capacities.