A response to a post in anger.

I mentioned a blog by a Reconstructionist rabbi and his endorsement of fair trade coffee. He comes out and actually responds to me in this post. He attempts a rebuttal of the point which I gladly will take apart.

Though perhaps I did the cause of Fair Trade a disservice by raising and discussing it in a very short post, I have no interest in getting into an economic shoving match with a libertarian on this subject. I will only say it is difficult for me to understand how anyone can claim poor coffee growers could possibly be “overpaid” or that Fair Trade “rips them off.” I encourage readers to learn more about Fair Trade, what it stands for, and it is such a critically important global movement.

My response about being overpaid was directed at those who sell the coffee not those who make it. They are probably paid the minimum price possible to qualify for the standard of Fair Trade. As to the ripoff part I would strongly guess that the profit margin of this coffee is far higher than the ordinary brands.

1. We are obligated to be responsible consumers.
As Maimonidies taught in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Theft 5:1): One may not buy from a thief the goods he has stolen and to do so is a great transgression because it strengthens the hands of those who violate the law and causes the thief to continue to steal for if the thief would find no buyer he would not steal, as it is written, “He who shares with a thief is his own enemy.

While purchasing coffee is not literally the same as buying stolen goods, we can and should make the case that consumers have an obligation to educate themselves about the source of the goods they purchase. It is thus reasonable to infer that consumers should not purchase any goods that the seller has obtained unethically or unfairly.

True enough, but this is clearly not something obtained unethically or unfairly. These people are not being paid little because they are being cheated. They are being paid little because they have little productivity value. The coffee growers are fine with letting them quit. There are many people who would take their place what’s more without this “unfair exploitation” these countries would be far worse off. In fact the worst thing to do to these workers would be to demand that all companies take on these standards. If you want to assuage your guilty conscience of being far richer than them fine, but don’t claim that by doing this you are making the only moral decision about coffee.

2. We are obligated to insure that workers are treated justly.

In Deuteronomy 24:14-15, we learn,

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends upon it.

We should underline here the line “urgently depends upon it.” Poor workers depend upon a reasonable wage for their very livelihood. If coffee farmers work hard to produce a product that we want and need, we have an obligation to insure they receive a fair wage that will allow them to live a sustainable life.

First of all the verse is banning fraud against workers by delaying payment. The Torah nowhere says that we must enforce a minimum wage and nowhere implies this in fact the Torah puts little restrictions on how to hire people. The obligation you mention is found nowhere in the Torah. There is an obligation to help the poor through charity but, nowhere is it said that the poor have a right to charity. In the Talmud we have frequent confirmations of this point.
Secondly the standards of poverty at that time are far below what the Torah is talking about. Even if you accept your position on the interpretation of “urgently depends upon it”, which I don’t, The amount of money is referring to levels close to a dollar a day in present purchasing power. These “oppressed” coffee workers are making far above this.

3. We are obligated to help the poor.

In Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12 we read:

There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty – the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers have said: if all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

And how do Jews help tzedakah. Maimonidies famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah is by entering into business partnerships that help the poor become self-sufficient. When we buy Fair Trade coffee, we are doing just that.

Poverty is terrible and nobody denies that. But buying fair trade coffee is a terrible way of alleviating it.
1. Fair Trade Coffee gives charity to those who need it the least: Farmers who are employed by these farms are almost certainly superior farmers compared to those who are rejected. Remember because of the high wages these farms can afford to be highly selective. In fact encouraging these coffee farms keeps more of the intelligent workers, who are probably slightly better farmers, on the farms instead of going on to bigger and better things. Therefore a solid argument can be made that Fair Trade Coffee actually harms the farmers.
2. Fair Trade Coffee gives you little charity for your dollar: So you paid a lot extra for your coffee and gave it to a company which is in it for the money. You have basically assured that you give about 20 cents on the dollar in actual charity.
3. Fair Trade Coffee supports a movement which leads to increased poverty in the Third World: Fair Trade Coffee bans the use of GMOs in its fields. Why exactly does it do this? Does it not realize that genetically modified organisms are a major solution to the Third World’s problems?
4. Microloans are better: You quote Maimonides and then ignore him. Microloans are the best form of charity and they are a form of charity which helps encourage higher return investments.
As to his point about not having any authority it is even more revealing. First of all the rabbi is hostage to his congregation’s whims because his job depends on how much they agree with him. Also he denies that there are any undebatable axioms in Judaism. In fact Reconstructionism has no argument against a murderer. He is merely placing his whim above the value of another’s human life. There is no Reconstrucionist disproof of his valuance of human life. By that standard he can’t be condemned because he doesn’t feel that he’s doing wrong. Utilitarian arguments can be made, but without a basic unassailable value system a religion becomes a meaningless exercise in excusing hedonism of different varieties. In fact since G-d’s existence is unprovable to have any reasonable definition of religion some axioms must be accepted. What I meant by authority was what source’s authority you base your conclusions on. If the answer is human logic then you have something nice, but you don’t have religion.

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One Response to A response to a post in anger.

  1. mike529 says:

    In fact reading Reconstructionist Jewry makes me realize how mainstream and to the right my religious views are even though in my setting my ideas are radical at best.

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