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October 15, 2012

Outsourcing war to private companies

The Canadian Charger

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Market values have surreptitiously taken control of more and more aspects of our lives leaving a moral vacuum at the heart of our politics according to Michael Sandel, political philosopher at Harvard University and author of What Money Can't Buy: the moral limits of markets.

Speaking to Anna Marie Tremonti on a recent edition of Canada’s CBC Radio Show The Current, Prof. Sandel said market philosophy has come to shape, mould and influence parts of our lives where it has no proper place and, as a result, we've gone from having a market economy to having a market society.

“A market economy is a tool, a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity, but a market society is a place where everything is up for sale. It's a place where market values and market relationships reach into spheres of life - health education, the environment, citizenship - spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market values. Over the last three decades we have drifted without realizing it from having a market economy to becoming a market society and this with very little public debate. It's troubling because market values can crowd out non-market values worth caring about.”

Civic values, values that have to do with integrity of our persons, the dignity of our bodies, our relationship to our children, and the way we conceive education, are among the values Prof. Sandel said are part of the great missing debate in the politics of most democracies in recent years.

He cites for example economists' attempts to defend the global market in human organs for transplantation - in which middle men make huge sums marketing organs such as kidneys – on the grounds that it increases the supply, which helps to alleviate the problem of people dying waiting for kidney transplants. However, Prof. Sandel offers an argument against this practice.

“Is it really fair to encourage or permit an impoverished Indian peasant - let's say who's desperate to feed his family - to sell off his or her body parts to some more affluent person who needs them? That's the fairness argument; but beyond that you might say that even in a society where there were not grave inequalities there might still be objections to buying and selling body parts, if you believe it corrupts the proper attitude toward our bodies. Is there something degrading about it?”

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where there were more paid, military troops on the ground than there were US military troops, is another example Prof. Sandel cites of market values determining public policy.

“These wars were being fought by people working for private companies, yet there was never a debate about outsourcing war to private companies.”

When Ms. Tremonti mentions the free-market mantra that “A free market is the foundation for democracy, “Prof. Sandel said we know that free markets have been powerful instruments of prosperity and growth for countries around the world, but that's not an argument for extending market mechanisms into every sphere of life.

“While many are drawn to the idea of freedom that free markets seem to offer, or at least jester toward, when we look more closely we find that treating all goods as commodities and instruments of use may degrade them.”

The example of the investor class of immigrant in the United States - foreigners who are allowed to immigrate if they're investing half a million dollars or more -  is another example of market values intruding into areas they may not belong in.  There's a parallel program in Canada where investors can be given a priority by immigration policy. Prof. Sandel said this comes pretty close to putting citizenship up for sale. He added that, in fact, one free-market economist - Gary Becker at the University of Chicago - has argued that we should put all of our controversies over immigration policy up for sale, perhaps up for auction - the right to live in the US or in Canada. Put a price tag of $50,000 or $100,000 on it and sell it outright to attract better immigrants - people who work hard, people who will make back their investments.

But Prof. Sandel said he thinks that cheapens the meaning of citizenship.

“The reason is we consider citizenship as something that is more than a commodity, more than a market good. We consider that it embodies certain values and responsibilities bound up with identity that are cheapened, diminished or corrupted if subjected to market valuation.”

He added that the US voting system is another example of citizenship being corrupted by market values.

“The US system of campaign finance comes perilously close to creating a market in votes. Unlimited campaign expenditures by individuals, by corporations, arguably corrupt democracy in a way that an open market in votes would also corrupt it.”

In Canada, the governing party coffers far exceed the value of the coffers of the other two main political parties, while we have a Prime Minister vying for a lucrative position on the board of directors of many large corporations, upon his exit from politics, much like a previous icon of the right - former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Meanwhile, because they allocate places in Congressional Hearings on a first-come-first-serve basis, a lot of lobbyists hire line-standing companies, who in turn hire the homeless to wait in the queue for hours, sometimes overnight in the rain; and then the lobbyists take up their places in the line before the hearings begin. Prof. Sandel said this amounts to auctioning access to the Congressional Hearings, which is corrupting what representative democracy is for. This, Prof. Sandel said, is an example of a market ideology coming to dominate more and more aspects of our lives.

“I think this has been a product of roughly three decades of market triumphalism. It goes back roughly speaking to the early 80's - the faith that markets and market mechanisms are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. It goes back to the Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan era, but what's striking is that even after they passed from the political scene their successors did not challenge the fundamental premise that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the public good.”

Perhaps they have trouble distinguishing between a free-market ideology and a theology.

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