(If I wanted to describe this internal discussion in political terms, then I’d say I’m trying to take a social democratic approach in a (global & national) society that is increasingly individualistic and libertarian. However, the meanings of those terms are always changing – explicitly social democrat politicians haven’t won a seat since 1984 or currently hold 43 seats in Parliament, depending upon how you want to define social democracy.)
We are shifting to a market society, which claims to be non-judgemental about values, presuming that people’s desires are entirely captured by the price that they will pay for goods or services. The usual response to this is to state that markets ignore morality either because moral questions are not priced or because treating people as market agents making free choices ignores power relationships that influence their choices. However, I think the problem with markets goes beyond simple questions of how prices are set and how markets are designed, or how people make purchase decisions.
How markets include morality is already the wrong question, but one that seems to be the one we have to answer. As mentioned in the discussion of what to do with my removed bone , property rights over bodies are complicated, but I have a deep unease over how the commodification of people’s bodies slides easily into the commodification of people’s personhood. This seems to be a topic of plenty of contention right now, with Glen Newey’s article “You have £2000, I have a kidney” summing up much of the discussion about the corrupting and immoral effects of markets on human interactions. A market for sexual services changes the value of sexual interactions – you may sleep with your lover for free or you may pay money to a prostitute, but a prostitute is not a lover. However, when you can pay a prostitute to take on the sexual role of your lover, what does that commodification do to your relationship with your lover? Equally, market transactions may be presented as voluntary, but your willingness to ‘voluntarily’ to swap your kidney for $2000 depends upon your wealth. When only poor people end up choosing to be involved in such drastic transactions, then the market results in outcomes that are unfair to say the least.
To my mind, the problem is one of blatant special pleading, of the long-term efforts of property-owners to convince the rest of society that there is no society, that property-ownership has a moral force, and that moral force should over-ride other moral concerns. Now, you’d think that reducing citizens to the status of market participants to justify and enhance existing divisions of wealth and power would be so obviously selfish that any attempts to do so would be laughed out of court. However, somehow, we’ve been convinced that such theft of our rights is in our best interests and that we’re better off as customers than as citizens.
NZ seems unusually open to this. The latest ACT coup involved no real idealogical changes, just nothing more than the purchase of an entire political party for surprisingly small amounts of money. One area where property law butts up against community ideals is in planning and development, where attempts by the Business Round Table and Law and Economics NZ to promote private property rights over environmental regulations have a theoretical underpinning in Epstein’s ideas that property law is a higher kind of law than other kinds of laws. (Jeremy Waldron’s Hamlyn lectures are the definitive response to this from a legal philosophy point of view, if you are up for a substantial read.)
This results, or aims to result, in ludicrous situations where a government that reduces a nation’s tobacco use might have to compensate tobacco companies for lost earnings. So what to do in response? The current version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership ‘trade’ agreement would be a bill of rights for investors, not for any of us. It would give foreign investors special rights that New Zealand citizens do not have, to override our sovereignty, and to hold their property rights about our human rights. It would allow foreign companies the right to demand compensation if NZ law interferes with their ‘rights’ to sell tobacco, water, or GM foods. TPP Watch doing a good job of publicising the secret sale of our rights and organising a response; Tech Liberty have been focusing on the appalling copyright and IP proposals within the TPP agreement. Please give them your support.
And if you haven’t signed the Keep Our Assets petition against selling off state property that you own, then get on with it.
*goes off and listens to Swans*
“And Nothing Is What It’s Worth”