Angelina Jolie, Sustainability, and Free Exchange
Is the damage done by ignorance of basic economics and of (classical) liberal philosophy reparable? Consider Angelina Jolie. She is now in the fashion business, which she wishes to be “sustainable,” ethical, and “circular-design.” (Whatever the latter means, I gather that it has nothing to do with body curves nor with always wearing the same clothes.) Like so many people, she seems to have bought wholesale the fashionable ideas and simili-altruistic shibboleths that run around and are typically devoid of serious economic and philosophical foundations. About her new business, she asks (“Angelina Jolie Is Rebuilding Her Life,” Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2023):
Can we avoid doing real damage—not only to the earth, but the garment workers? … Is it possible that I could go somewhere and enjoy making clothes, enjoy wearing clothes and not hurt anybody? And actually maybe treat people well?
The economic way of thinking as well as liberal philosophy give a clear answer to these questions: Yes. Two formally equal parties who voluntarily exchange something must each benefit compared to their respective pre-exchange situation; if one doesn’t, he will decline the exchange. “Formally equal” means that the parties have an equal liberty to interact with others although, of course, their circumstances may be, and in fact always are, different. Each one estimates his own benefit compared to his pre-exchange situation. The evaluation is not made by an external observer according to the latter’s preferences. Anyway, external observers typically have different views of what nirvana would require for others. Not surprisingly, it is with free exchange that ordinary people have become rich starting with the Industrial Revolution, after millennia of dire poverty. Free exchange is not a zero-sum game.
The sweatshop worker is happy to indirectly work for her. That is how he is striving to improve his own situation, instead of submitting to, and putting his faith in, exploitative governments. Destroying his liberty, dignity, and employment to please rich intellectuals in rich countries is the opposite of ethical. (See my “Defending Sweatshops,” a review of Benjamin Powell’s Out of Poverty, in Regulation, Summer 2015, pp. 66-68.)
It is sad that the ideas echoed by Jolie implicitly deny not only what is conducive to general prosperity, but also the underlying liberal ideal of equal individuals engaging in reciprocally beneficial interactions, each one according to his own evaluation. Of course, Ms. Jolie is free to help other people, and I have no reason to doubt that she is a caring, benevolent person. But she would quite probably be more efficient by trading with her business partners on a business basis (as she has done in her movie career), making as much honest profit as she can, and devoting part of her profits to her chosen charitable endeavors.
She is apparently not a very political person. One of her remarks suggests that she has some good instincts, although it could also reflect the common illusion that collective choices—some people’s choices that are coercively imposed on others—are compatible with individualism and liberty: “I love individuality and I love freedom,” she said.