HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


Concerns about fairness leave champions of free trade puzzled. First, to some, talk about fairness in trade is conceptually muddled. Ideas of fairness seem tied to the image of “leveling the playing field” and thus concerned with equalizing background conditions, whereas trade thrives on differences. So how could ideas about “leveling” even apply to trade in the first place? Second, even if this difficulty can be overcome, one wonders how ideas of “fairness in trade” can do any work. International trade is a voluntary activity in a setting where actors do not share a thick coercive structure (e.g., a body of laws of the sort citizens of a state share) before which worries about fairness are most easily motivated. Third, even if this worry could be put aside as well, we must ask whether fairness concerns conflict with economic progress. If so, transitory unfairness might be the price to pay for developing countries to beat poverty and eventually to reach an economic level at which fairness considerations can be taken more seriously. Still, it is hard to deny that fairness must apply to trade somehow. Trade affects what people have: countries benefit unequally, and domestically trade may well produce winners and losers – matters that cry out for an assessment in terms of fairness. In addition to its importance in an age of globalization this collision of views on the appropriateness of applying fairness talk to trade urges us to gain more clarity on the subject of fairness in trade, a subject that also harbors some philosophical complexities. This study explores how fairness applies to trade, or, roughly speaking, how to account for talk about “fairness in trade,” and does so in a way that accommodates the worries above.


Risse, Mathias. "Fairness in Trade." KSG Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP05-004, January 2005.