Robert Murphy

And what of the suspicion of “middlemen”? Starbucks itself is a giant corporate middleman! It does me no good as a consumer to have fresh coffee beans harvested thousands of miles away. It takes dozens, possibly hundreds, of middlemen and middlewomen to get those beans into the retailer’s hands, so that a surly teenager can hand me a steaming cup within seconds after I pull up to the window. Yes, I certainly pay more than if I directly dealt with the Brazilian farmer, but I don’t have a working relationship with any Brazilian farmers. That’s what I pay Starbucks for.

Even the ban on child labor isn’t so straightforward. Sure, it makes me uncomfortable to think of little children in distant lands toiling away so I can get a cappuccino, but does it really help them to refuse to give them money? For many families around the world, the children need to work to avoid starvation. Declaring ourselves righteous and hiring only adults doesn’t fix the problem.

• “Starbucks placed full-page advertisements in The New York Times that highlighted the need for collective action to address climate change.”

Regardless of one’s political views, surely we can all agree that we don’t need corporations taking our money and spending it to advance a particular agenda. I would be horrified if McDonald’s said it would use Big Mac proceeds to fund radio spots highlighting the need for a capital gains tax cut, even though I believe in that message. If something is controversial enough (such as how to address greenhouse gases or whether to cut taxes) that advertisements are necessary, then corporations shouldn’t be in the business of choosing sides. They can use the money instead to cut prices or give dividends to their shareholders, who can then donate to nonprofit advocacy groups if they so wish.

I know the proponents of corporate social responsibility will retort: “These practices make good business sense! So you should support them as an economist.” But if a certain policy makes a company more money, we don’t need to browbeat the company into adopting it. No, these Fair Trade and other principles only really matter when they are unprofitable. Wasting money on principles that are dubious to begin with doesn’t seem very “responsible” to me.

Robert Murphy

Robert Murphy has a Ph.D. in economics and is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism (Regnery 2007).

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