Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

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Patriotic Purchasing: is there a duty to buy British?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the calls politicians and other public figures often make; that we should “Buy British!”. I can think of circumstances where it might be a good thing to purchase on patriotic grounds: for example, it might have all sorts of good consequences (economic, environmental, community-forming etc), or it might express the virtue of loyalty. It’s in this vein that Boris Johnson and Nick Clegg made the statements below in 2012 and 2009 respectively.

“Imagine if we all bought English wine, as well as British beef and British milk. Imagine if every government-funded function were refreshed with English wine, rather than Chilean cabernet sauvignon. Think of the boost for jobs and growth in the wine sector in this country. Think of the difference to the balance of trade – now about as bad as it has been in our lifetimes. Think of the difference to this country’s prospects if – ceteris paribus – we bought British.”

“economic recovery starts at home. Consumers should be proud to Buy British – and buy local – particularly at a time of recession.”

What I’ve been wondering however, is not whether it might be good to buy British, but whether we might be morally required to purchase patriotically.

Initially, I thought it pretty obvious that we can’t possibly have duties to buy stuff off our fellow citizens just because they are our fellows. In fact, the thought that we might ever have a duty to buy something full stop is intuitively implausible. Unless, of course, we’ve specifically made an agreement to do so by signing a contract or making a promise. None of us has made an agreement to buy British goods though.

However, I’m beginning to think that there are at least a few possible arguments that can be made. I’m not yet sure they are strong arguments, but they are at least a start and I won’t be sure of my position until I’ve found the strongest arguments for and against.

One thought is that purchasing from compatriots might be a way to fulfil an imperfect duty to them. If we have duties to protect and promote the well-being of others, then a way we could fulfil that duty is by buying from them. Perhaps my neighbour’s business is struggling, and I know that he’s invested everything in it – his shop is a central component of his conception of the good life. Richard Dagger has argued that we have a duty to protect and promote the ability of others to lead an autonomous life.1 Knowing that the success of his business is important to his being able to exercise his autonomy, I persuade my other neighbours to shop with him and in doing so his business survives and we all fulfil our duties.

I think this argument works, but what it doesn’t do is show that a) I have a duty to buy from businesses that are succeeding well, or b) that this is a duty which springs from my neighbour’s status as a compatriot rather than a general duty owed to everyone. Indeed, I might have a stronger duty to purchase goods from a distant stranger if I know their need is greater. Because of this, it can’t easily motivate a duty to “Buy British!”.

One reply to this could be to slot in an argument for preferring compatriots to non-compatriots. I shan’t outline such an argument here, but there are a few routes for claiming that we should give extra weight to the interests of compatriots. Doing this might at least provide a reply to point b) above. And, one could respond to a) by saying that the duty to purchase patriotically only obtains when the economy is in trouble. In fact, it seems like calls to “Buy British!” are usually made in hard times, so this reply has the virtue of making the analysis relevant to practice.

However, neither of these responses can escape the fact that if purchasing patriotically is merely a means of fulfilling an imperfect duty then if I can fulfil my duty to my neighbour in some other way I am permitted to do so. Perhaps we could make an argument that purchasing from compatriots is the only way to fulfil duties, or that we have an overriding reason to choose it as a means of fulfilling duties. Those seems like unlikely scenarios, but I’ll concede that they are at least possible. Another possible circumstance where we might have a duty to buy from compatriots is if we have good independent reasons for boycotting all alternative products. Again, this is unlikely but possible, and it only applies to goods we can’t live without (since we still have the option of not buying other goods and doing without).

All in all, it looks like that although we might have reasons ceteris paribus for favouring our compatriots in our purchasing decisions, the circumstances where we could have duties to do so are very narrow. When it comes to it though, other things are rarely equal – a very great number of the products we buy could benefit distant strangers in far greater need than our nearby compatriots. Unless the arguments for preferring compatriots are strong, then calls to purchase on patriotic grounds will have little moral force.

1. Richard Dagger, “Rights, Boundaries, and the Bonds of Community: A Qualified Defense of Moral Parochialism,” The American Political Science Review 79, no. 2 (June 1, 1985): 437.


Boycotting quinoa: duties of consumers & producers

I’m tentatively working on a paper on ethical consumerism and duties to fellow citizens. One question that’s particularly exercising me right now is whether, if individuals have duties not to buy certain things, might that entail a duty in the seller not to offer to sell those things to me and visa versa?

I’m writing the paper in the context of several newspaper articles complaining that the rising popularity of quinoa in the West has made it less available to Bolivian citizens, who have eaten the seed since the time of the Incas.

Currently I’m unconvinced it’s unambiguously bad that Bolivians can’t afford or source their grain. So far, this is something the some journalists telling the tale have assumed. Why might it not be bad? Well, for one thing, the increased price of quinoa means more profit for the Bolivian farmers that grow it, and more spending by them in their local communities. There are also plentiful and cheap high-protein alternative staples grown locally (such as soya) that can be bought instead.

Nevertheless, if we assume that Bolivians not being able to buy quinoa is an overall bad state of affairs – perhaps they gain more utility from eating it than those who it’s exported to, or perhaps their conceptions of the good are bound up in eating their traditional foods. If this is so, then maybe Western consumers should not be buying quinoa as part of a duty to maximise the good or to avoid harming distant strangers. Given that Bolivian farmers have, I assume, freely sold their products for export, I’m not sure it’s straightforwardly right to boycott quinoa, but let’s put that objection aside and assume that it is for now.

If it is wrong for me to buy quinoa from Bolivia, then presumably it’s also wrong for Bolivian farmers to sell their quinoa to me. However, there are a great many problems with this position, and that’s what’s really troubling me. For one thing, this position may mean that producers of goods are required only to sell where doing so might produce the overall best state of affairs. I can see that this could be the case if the producer is selling goods he or she knows will be used to do some terrible wrong (such as guns to a murderous regime), but is an apple producer only to sell apples to people he or she knows to enjoy apples the most or are most in need of the nutrients the apple contains? There’s a lot of freedom sacrificed in that position. A further problem I see is that it means the producer must avoid selling to anyone he or she thinks may sell or give the product to anyone else. Again, it would seem strange for the apple seller to be required to refuse to sell his or her apples to someone who might give those apples to a third party who might like the apples less than some other person, particularly when none of the intervening transfers are likely to be unjust. What’s more, it seems rather strange to think that private producers have duties to their fellow citizens to give them first right of refusal on any product they want to sell, and that the duty requires offering the product at a price their fellows can afford even if they can sell it for much more elsewhere. If there are such duties then those the product was sold to would also acquire a duty not to transfer their purchases out of the community. All of that looks to be an unacceptable set of constraints on freedom and rife with epistemic problems for the duty-bearers.

Let’s remember, Bolivian farmers aren’t forced to sell their quinoa to people who will export it, and they benefit substantially from doing so. Nor does it seem plausible to me (I’d love some input on this) to suggest that they have a duty not to sell to anyone but their fellow citizens. If it’s not wrong for Bolivians to sell their quinoa, then just what makes it wrong for me to buy it? I’m quite puzzled by the idea that it might be permissible for Bolivian farmers to sell their quinoa to me, but impermissible for me to buy it from them. Anyone care to help me out on this one?

If quinoa is so important to Bolivians, might I even be required, if I am able, to purchase their exported quinoa and then give it back to them (or sell it at an affordable price)? That might be a position utilitarianism requires, but it looks highly implausible to me.