Counting Beans


Henry Farrell asks why so many Libertarians are opposed to fair trade coffee. Jim Henley piles on. Jacob Grier provides a partial defense:

If you’re shopping at Costco and debating between a big bag of Procter and Gamble’s regular coffee or their Fair Trade beans, you’re probably making some farmer marginally better off by choosing the latter. Fair Trade may play a useful role in mass market coffee. However if you want to pass the maximum of your purchase price onto coffee farmers, your best bet is to buy the highest quality coffee you can from roasters like Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, or Stumptown (to name the usual three, though there are many others).

In fact, it doesn’t even matter whether you care about coffee farmers or not. If you selfishly pay for quality in the cup you’re very likely buying beans that brought more revenue to them than Fair Trade would have. Adam Smith was right and so, sometimes, is the libertarian’s ironic intuition.

(Image: An employee handles the coffee which is the result of civet dung during the production of Civet coffee, the world's most expensive coffee in Bondowoso on August 11, 2009 in East Java, near Surabaya, Indonesia. The coffee, also known as Kopi Luwak, is produced by the civet (a small squirrel-like arboreal mammal) which eats the coffee berries or red coffee cherries, the beans inside which pass through its digestive tract, expelling them undigested as feces. The feces are then cleaned, dried and lightly roasted to make the coffee. Coffee from Indonesian civets is considered to have the best aroma, and it is the unique enzymes in the civet's stomach which give coffee its bitter taste. It retails for USD 100 to USD 600 per pound but only around 1000 pounds make it to market each year and supply is very limited. By Ulet Ifansasti/Getty)