Nation of Beancounters

In defence of the handmade

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on January 9, 2013

I do not buy a word of it, but it’s nice to see this view presented so well:

Surely we appreciate the handmade in part because it is handmade. An object or a meal has different meaning and significance if we know it to be the product of a human being working skilfully with tools rather than a machine stamping out another clone. Even if in some ways a mass-produced object is superior in its physical properties, we have good reasons for preferring a less perfect, handcrafted one.

… But do we have good reasons for this preference, or is it just romantic nonsense? I think we do. We live in a world of humans, other animals and things, and the quality of life depends on the qualities of the relationships between them. Mass production, like factory farming, weakens, if not destroys, these relationships. This creates a kind of alienation, where we feel no genuine, human contact with those who supply us with what we need.

We are not simply hedonic machines who thrive if supplied with things that tick certain boxes for sensory pleasure, aesthetic merit, and so on. We are knowing as well as sensing creatures, and knowing where things come from, and how their makers are treated, does and should affect how we feel about them. Chocolate made from cocoa beans grown by people in near slave conditions should taste more bitter than a fairly traded bar, even if it does not in a blind tasting. Blindness, far from making tests fair, actually robs us of knowledge of what is most important, while perpetuating the illusion that all that really matters is how it feels or seems at the moment of consumption.

This might seem a simple, even platitudinous point. But it has profound political implications. For if it is true, then the whole way in which efficiency is usually measured is fundamentally flawed. Take agriculture. Proponents of organics and other non-intensive, less petrochemically dependent forms of farming are often drawn into the game of defending their approach only by measurable, objective results. So the battle becomes a statistical debate over yield, water usage, carbon footprint, soil erosion, and so forth. The trouble is that the kind of human-scale farming that people like does not always win when judged by these metrics.

… it is legitimate to prefer forms of trade and artisan production that maintain links between individuals, communities, land, and animals.

I’m limiting my response to the bare minimum, because I think it’s important for economists to understand this view, and these preferences, before we respond to them. Read the article more closely than you read my response. The essay is about coffee, and you can find a related article here.

And now my response:

1. These “preferences” are as much a consequence of “false consciousnesses” as anything else. We have them because we’re “supposed to”. They have no more legitimacy than the desire for status symbol sneakers. It’s interesting that people cannot see that a taste for small farmers is as much a consequence of the glamorization of the peasant life as polo shirts are a consequence of glamorizing country clubs.

2. At worst, these preferences can be seen as a desire by the well-off of the world to escape the taint of being associated with the ugliness of the lives of the poor of the world, regardless of what benefit these impoverished individuals gain from the association. This is not necessarily a preference to trumpet. Paul Krugman put it better than I ever will:

Why does the image of an Indonesian sewing sneakers for 60 cents an hour evoke so much more feeling than the image of another Indonesian earning the equivalent of 30 cents an hour trying to feed his family on a tiny plot of land–or of a Filipino scavenging on a garbage heap? The main answer, I think, is a sort of fastidiousness. Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit–and this makes us feel unclean.

3. Indulging these preferences can harm people we care about: raise wages in Chinese factories and already poor workers will become unemployed. See Krugman again.

4. Indulging these preferences harms goals we care about. Buying locally grown foods, for example could be worse for the environment than buying the industrial stuff.

5. Such preferences, expressed via “politics” sometimes occurs in the form of a ill-considered demand for a ban on such things, which, at the bare minimum, infringes on the preferences of individuals who do not share such views and at worst, deprives the less well-off from access to hedonistic sensory pleasures. This author calls for no such thing, which I acknowledge.

There is nothing illegitimate about these preferences, but there is no reason for any of us to consider these as superior to anything else.

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