From Volume 84, Number 4 (May 2011)
The law, when enforced, can be used to punish. It can be used to articulate social norms and standards, or to define and impose responsibilities. The law can also, however, be used to change incentives. When designed and implemented properly, a good law establishes an incentive structure to align legal responsibility with the actors most able to change a set of results–actors who possess the information, the institutional capacity, and the practical ability to make a difference in a situation our society seeks to improve. In the 111th Congress, Representative Jim McDermott proposed just such a law. The Conflict Minerals Trade Act took note of America’s role in the devastating humanitarian crisis it may be inadvertently fueling: the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC” or “DR Congo”), home to the minerals used in nearly every electronic product known to man. Indeed, as the conflict in DR Congo reaches catastrophic proportions, the interests of a broad range of actors have become affected–and not just those in the human rights sector. Mineral wealth extracted from DR Congo is likely inside of your cell phone, your laptop, and your iPod–raising issues of personal responsibility as well as corporate ethics. As individuals confront their consciences and investors contemplate their stock portfolios, issues once relegated to the realm of international human rights law have now entered many of our homes and purses without us realizing. The Conflict Minerals Trade Act, by altering an incentive structure, aimed to change that unawareness by bringing our trade legislation in line with both our best interests and our ethical responsibilities.