Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence and the Rules that Run the World

Leif Wenar Oxford University Press, 494 pages, $34.95

Look at the tablet or the paper that you are reading. Its making will probably involve oil, minerals or metals. Some of those resources will have come from a country whose government steals from and oppresses its citizens. By one estimate, almost 10 percent of what the average American household spends on gasoline each year goes directly into the coffers of such regimes. This is a nasty, if familiar, thought. But Leif Wenar, a philosopher at King's College London, pushes these ideas further, with uncomfortable consequences. Wenar's philosophy is influenced by the writings of the young Karl Marx, who maintained that the daily grind of economic life makes it hard for people to live up to their political ideals. In jargon-free prose, Wenar argues persuasively that Western consumers are blinded to the fact that international trade still operates according to the "law of the jungle."

For Wenar, the answer is simply to stop buying natural resources from nasty regimes. Wenar sees the situation today as analogous to Britain's abolition of the slave trade in the early 19th century. Most readers will find this comparison less than convincing. Wenar does makes more practical suggestions, though — for example, that Norway, a country that imports almost no oil from unfree countries, should make a symbolic pledge never to do so. Wenar's failure to suggest a workable solution is, paradoxically, the most powerful part of the book. He reveals a horrible truth: that global free trade is, at times, bound up in blood.