Blood Oil and the Individual Consumer

Christian Barry is a Professor of Philosophy in the Research School of the Social Sciences at the Australian National University. His areas of expertise are moral and political philosophy, with a focus on issues of international justice.

At the beginning of his inventive masterwork Blood Oil  Leif Wenar tells a compelling story about how individual consumers are implicated in severe harm abroad. We are accustomed to the depredations of authoritarian regimes, civil conflict, widespread human rights violations and extreme poverty far removed from our day to day activities. We can ring our hands and shake our heads, but what do we really have to do with any of these happenings? And given that we have little to do with them, how much cost can we actually be expected to take on to try to mitigate them? Wenar grabs us by the lapels and shakes us from such acquiescent patterns of thinking. He argues that we are contributing to many such harms, and doing so directly though our everyday purchasing behavior. We are not, as we suppose, innocent bystanders, but are unwitting contributors to death and terror, filling the pockets of merciless men who steal their countries’ resources and terrorize their populations (xvi) when we fill our tanks and do our shopping at the local mall.

While the casual links between individual consumers and these harms may be long and complex, the mechanisms that hold them together are, on Wenar’s telling, surprisingly simple. The problem is that trade is governed by “an archaic rule of international trade that violates the most fundamental rule of capitalism: to protect property rights.” This archaic rule is what Wenar calls effectiveness. The content of this rule is that “coercive control over a population (“might”) will result in legal control over that population’s resources (“right”)(xlv). Basically, “whoever can seize it may sell it” (76). Effectiveness creates powerful incentives for people to take and maintain control over resources, which explains why so many resource-rich countries suffer from social and political dis-function. And it is because of this rule that the money we spend at filling stations and on consumer goods goes back into the pockets of oppressive rulers and fuels intense and violent competition over the control of resources.

Yet while Wenar confronts individuals directly for their role in this deeply unjust system of trade, the reform proposals he offers are not things that individuals, qua individuals, can do. Rather, they focus primarily on what states can do to make their trade governed by the principle of popular sovereignty over resources, rather than effectiveness (‘might makes right’). That is, states must cease to engage in trade in resources with governments that fail to meet even quite minimal standards of legitimacy—a Clean Trade Act (283). And they must impose tariffs on goods imported from countries that use resources from such regimes as inputs to their production, with the funds held until they can be returned to the exporting countries once their governments are legitimate—a Clean Hands Trust (289).

Supposing that Wenar’s analysis of what states ought to do—adopt Clean Trade—is correct, where does this leave the individual consumers with which he begins? One answer might seem straightforward: individual consumers should join together to bring about the changes in the policies of the states that represent them to comply with the norms of Clean Trade. Wenar points out that it is only because our domestic legal regimes treat despotic regimes as entitled to sell their countries’ resources to us, and because they protect out property rights in the things we buy involving such resources, that the archaic rule remains in place. It is our governments that identify which foreigners possess legal rights to sell foreign resources to us, and were they to suspend such rights (as in the case of the executive order targeting Sudan) we could not purchase them (106, 108). So the natural approach would be to work together to bring about legal reform in our own countries so as to delink ourselves from non-clean trade.

As a claim about what we ought to do, this seems unobjectionable. However, the path from what we ought to do, to what I and other individuals reading his book ought to do, is an uneasy one. I cannot count on others doing what we ought together do in deciding how to act.  Indeed, the unwillingness of others to do what we ought to do may change what I ought to do. If it turns out that the concerted action of willing individuals will be highly unlikely to bring about the reforms Wenar proposes, where does that leave us? This is not an idle question. Although Wenar carefully shows how his reforms may be incentive compatible, there are also, he notes, very powerful interests that would be mobilized against them (230). Certainly, no major political party in any Western country has made trade reforms of this type part of their agenda, and it is hardly obvious that this will change in the near future.

Note that the kind of responsibility that Wenar has attributed to consumers—not to contribute to harming innocent people and stealing resources that belong to them—is quite stringent. We cannot easily excuse ignoring this responsibility by appealing to the costs to ourselves of doing so, or to other valued moral ends that our conduct will bring about if we act against it (as Wenar details, existing trade generates great benefits, as well as harms, which might be diminished with reduction in trade volumes (x). So throwing up our hands in frustration at the unwillingness of others to help bring about the desired institutional reforms while getting on with our ordinary business is not, on this reasoning, an option. Nor would the option of supporting Clean Trade policies that we are confident will not be adopted now or in the near future seem sufficient. One option would be for individuals to withdraw from involvement in trade with countries that do not practice popular resource sovereignty. Wenar suggests that this is not really feasible. He notes that it is nearly impossible to function in modern societies without using petroleum-based products (xxxvi). But this argument is not entirely convincing. While it may be true that we can hardly avoid consuming oil, we can surely limit significantly the degree to which we consume it and products composed of it. And it seems we should take on such costs, if that is really what it takes to refrain from putting lots of money in the hands of repressive regimes.  So at the very least his argument would seem to trigger a quite stringent responsibility to reduce consumption—an implication he does not explicitly embrace in his book. Alternatively, individuals might seek to avoid consumption of oil from at least those countries that do not embrace popular sovereignty over resources. Wenar is skeptical that we can do this either, noting that the supply chains involving such products are too complex and intertwined.  But should we accept that it is really impossible to gain more information about where the oil we consume is from? Would it not be possible for citizens to start to demand such information from firms that sell goods to them? Pressure of this sort might be difficult to generate, but arguably much less difficult than bringing about substantial institutional reform. And as Wenar there are example campaigns such as ‘publish what you pay’ that are at least encouraging in this regard. There seem certainly to be some instances in which we can shift from non-clean trade to clean (or at least cleaner) trade, such as when a new product like the FairPhone appears that is functionally equivalent to other mobile devices without involving components sourced via non-clean trade. Wenar claims that “it’s difficult to imagine being a Fair Trade consumer of oil”, but surely individuals can at least do a bit better than they do at present. Moreover, skepticism about the ability to learn more about the province of goods and services sits somewhat uncomfortably with Wenar’s own proposal of a Clean Hands Trust, which requires that we return funds to exporting countries once their governments restore popular sovereignty over resources. How would we know what we should return to whom unless we are able to track, at least roughly, where the inputs to consumer goods are coming from? His own proposals seem to depend on the feasibility of reliable schemes of certificates of origin (409).

When it comes to the stringent responsibility not to contribute to severe harm, acting contrary to it triggers a requirement to take on quite significant costs to address the hardships of the victims. So if it is infeasible to withdraw from involvement in non-clean trade, this seems to trigger quite demanding duties to address their effects. How should such duties be discharged? All things being equal, individuals should take action in the manner that is most likely to remedy the most amount of harm. One possibility will be to take on cost to support Wenar’s proposals. We can vote, lobby, contribute to those who are seeking to bring about these changes. But if the forces allied against such changes seem unlikely to be overcome, what individuals should do may diverge considerably from what we together should to. I ought to orient my efforts where they will have the greatest chance of success. What alternative strategies might I take? Some of these are already suggested by Wenar’s proposal at the state level. We as individuals could self-impose a tax on goods that come to us through non-clean trade. Ideally, these funds would not be held in trust, but rather directed back to those harmed insofar as there is any chance this would do any good. While I have been speaking of individuals, there is no reason they cannot join together with like-minded others to create organizations that pool such resources and acquit them responsibly.

Blood Oil is an important work, and individuals need to think seriously about what they ought to do in light of its analysis given the many obstacles to the adoption of the far-reaching policy reforms that Wenar defends in this work. Failing to take action as individuals while waiting for institutional reform has another disturbing implication—those who continue to harm innocent people and steal their property become liable to being harmed in self-defense, as well as having their (stolen) property appropriated by its rightful owners or others acting on their behalf.