Markets, morality, & the commodification of personhood and citizenship

(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”

In the Innovation Garden – Thoughts from the Transit of Venus Conference

I spent last week out in Gisborne at the Transit of Venus conference, where the local community made us most welcome and we spent our days talking about how to turn NZ into the kind of smart, knowledge-intensive nation. Both the debate about innovation and the debate about sustainable farming had a strong parallel, in that everyone recognises that we need new thinking and that new thinking is all about ecosystems. Or at least, that’s the buzzword everyone is waving around. I don’t think we’ve quite worked through what that means, so I stood up and made a comment aimed at digging more deeply into what an ecosystem approach might mean.

Here’s what I said (or rather the notes I spoke from and tidied up afterwards):

“We’ve been talking about the need for deep structural change in NZ innovation, in our economy, and our society. Deep changes are changes in thinking and changes in metaphor. We need new metaphors for thinking about post-normal science, post-normal innovation, post-normal economies,post-normal societies. Let’s face it, we’re facing post-normal everything.

We’ve had the linear model of science: put some researchers in a box, an idea appears, it is taken through a rigid development pipeline, capital is added in fixed stages, and the goal is profitable growth. This is a finite system, with fixed boundaries. It is normal. But this is the Twenty-First Century and we know it doesn’t work like that any more.

We’ve had the same model for farming, of factories for commodities. Control the inputs, optimise for one factor – maximised production, intensify. It is short-timescale thinking and looks great if all you care about is GDP. It is normal. But this is the Twenty-First Century and we know it doesn’t work like that any more.

This is the Twenty-First Century and we need to do better. We need new metaphors, paradigms, models. We’ve spend the day hearing about ecosystems, whether natural or of technological innovation. When we say “ecosystem”:
• we recognise the complexity of systems, where we cannot know or control all the interactions between parts of the system;
• we recognise we have to work with a range of outside forces, whether those are weather and pests or the whims of overseas markets or investors;
• we recognise that is hard to draw sharp boundaries around what is or isn’t in the system;
• we have to optimise for a range of co-benefits, not a single goal; and
• we have to think short- and long-term, about what we leave for the next generation.

Whether we are innovative farmers and land managers caring for biodiversity and gaining higher prices for doing so or we are innovators in high-tech manufacturing, partnering with researchers and customers across cultures and nations, then we are trying to work with ecosystems.

It’s all very post-normal.

So what metaphors do we have to help us think about how to work with ecosystems? The best I can think of is to stop thinking factories and start thinking gardens, and to think of ourselves as gardeners.

We all know what we want from a garden. We want to grow our fruit and veg; we want to hear the tui and kaka flying overhead; we want a safe space for our kids to grow up, run around, fall over, skin their knees, and get up again; and at the end of the day we want to sit down with a glass of wine and be proud of what we have created.

So I suggest to the innovators and science system managers, you should sit down with the ecologists, the farmers, the conservation managers, and think deeply about what an ecosystem model means for innovation, and what a gardeners approach would be for working with this system.”

And you can watch my comment, complete with wavy hands and shiny head, on Youtube.

I’m on a ship

Amongst other activities last week, I ended up having a two-hour trip from Tolaga Bay to Gisbourne on HMNZS Rotoiti, one of the Navy’s patrol boats.

This being NZ, I asked “can I have a look around”, and they went “yup, go where you like, just don’t stick your hand in any rotating machinery”. And I said “can I take pics”, and they said “ah yea bro”, coz this is NZ, and we’re not too uptight. And hey, my taxes pay for this.

So I can report that the engine room is loud and hot, the prop shafts are big and rotating (and I didn’t stick my hand near them), the tea is suitably tea-flavoured, everyone onboard is comfortably informal whilst still getting on with doing the job, parts of the ship run Windows XP, the ride is very smooth at 20 knots, the bridge has five different displays showing the ship’s heading, and the biggest problem the Navy has right now is that their staff can earn shit loads more if they up and go and work in the Australian mines instead.

Even on a 180 foot ship, you have to rapidly learn where to stand in other not to be in the way. Or at least you do if, like me, you’re self-loading freight who is just standing gawping.

Also, this being a warship, the Rotoiti is well equipped to fight and win against both fishing boats and sharks.