Richard Turnbull: The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price


The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price is a collection of essays in economic anthropology.  The volume, which is academic orientated, consists of an introduction to the theme and then eight case studies in different anthropological settings. The core issue at stake is the idea of what constitutes a just price, the relationship of price to value and hence to justice, the manner in which this then interacts with the market price and how this relates to real life activity in individual settings. Many of the individual stories and scenarios are fascinating and bring out some genuine tensions and complexities. Those anthropological settings ranger from waste pickers in Turkey, fruit growers in southern Spain, corn and bean trading in Nicaragua to small holders in Tuscany.

The first chapter is a scene-setting introduction. Four approaches to the idea of a just price are noted. The first of these is the classic model in which the interaction of supply and demand in a clearing market reflects consumer utility and hence represents a just price. The other approaches are labour value, the idea that commensuration – the comparison of use value and exchange value – is socially mediated in different historical and geographical circumstances (that is, social value) and, finally, a denial of the possibility of a just price or the possibility of reconciling exchange value and use value. The other key definition is that of “moral economy”, a term derived from the Marxist historian, E.P. Thompson. Unsurprisingly, the term is defined as “a critique of the laissez-faire economic model” (page 14), which really fails to give proper weight to the potential richness of the term, not least since the authors acknowledge that Adam Smith’s argument “resembles a notion of the just price” (page 8). More work is required in this area and the book is over-dependent on Thompson.

There are two aspects in particular that are worthy of further reflection in a review. The first is, notwithstanding the complexities and indeed alternative approaches, how many of the detailed anthropological settings which are analysed still give considerable, if not unlimited, weight to the classic determination of the just price. To give just one example from the volume. The actors in the Turkish scrap metal waste recycling industry include the waste-pickers who sell to warehouses and then sell on to recycling companies who in turn sell the recycled materials into the manufacturing process. Consequently, there are numerous opportunities for collusion, state intervention and global market dominance (London Metal Exchange) not to mention other contested areas. Perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not, when “the state intervenes to alter the price at which waste-pickers and traders sell, either by direct imposition or through legal regulations, waste-pickers and traders perceive this as unfair and defend the average market price as the just price” (page 28). The study even concluded that “contestations over price in the Turkish recycling sector did not generate claims for justice against the abstract market price.” Adam Smith lives on.

The second area of fruitful reflection which is reflected in several of the studies is the relationship of exchange value and use value as mediated through social relationships. Thus, fruit and vegetable growers in southern Spain, small holders in Tuscany and corn traders in Nicaragua all proceed on the economic anthropological assumption that whilst accepting “important aspects of market exchanges, a substantive frame suggests a just price must also consider social and political relations” (page 92). These examples also proceed on emphasising the distinction between exchange value and use value. Hence, the vegetable growers will supply food to their own town at a different price at which surplus is sold into the market (page 95). The Tuscan small-holders hold to an ideal for a household “to own sufficient land to meet the bulk of their subsistence needs with a small surplus for sale” (page 141). Numerous familial and local exchanges would take place none of which were monetarised. In the Nicaraguan context the authors tells us that “peasants consciously oppose use values to exchange values through their moral ideologies” (page 116). Essentially all of these examples operate with two prices in two separate markets – a global, distant and anonymous exchange value based on supply and demand and a localised market based on face-to-face transactions grounded in personal and social relationships.

The strength of the volume is two-fold. First, that the role of a market price as a just price is recognised and accepted in a wide variety of anthropological settings. Secondly, that there are political, but in particular social factors that impact and form and shape prices in the local setting. In a sense this should be no surprise – differential pricing in different markets in accordance with then varying aims and objectives of sellers in alternative markets. There is nothing incompatible here with a market economy, but it is a valuable and helpful reminder as to how various communities respond locally in the context of wider and global markets.

The somewhat disappointing chapter was the essay on the compensation scheme following the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse. Although fascinating and incisive in its own right, and in a truly horrific context, the chapter seemed out of place in a discussion of just pricing.

Each individual chapter is self-contained and relatively concise and quite a fascinating read. Some real insights, extraordinary contexts, complex history and genuine engagement with the relationship of economic and social considerations in markets and pricing.

The weakness of the essays is that much of the language is simply turgid, and unnecessarily so. The academic foundations of the volume are both its strength and weakness; some interesting questions but shrouded in a mystical academic language of a rather obscure discipline. The book is very expensive and you would need a specific interest in the academic subject matter to justify purchase (at the market price one might add!).


The Politics and Ethics of the Just Price, edited by Peter Luetchford and Giovanni Orlando was published 2019 by Emerald Publishing (ISBN: 978-1-78743-574-2) as volume 39 in the series Research in Economic Anthropology. 245pp.

Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.