Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Costs and Values

by Ian Harris                          Otago Daily Times                          June 8, 2012

Did anyone else, I wonder, stir uneasily at the Treasury’s pre-Budget reflection on the benefits of smoking? Benefits to the economy, that is, certainly not to smokers. Not only will the increase in the excise tax on tobacco swell the Government’s coffers by $400 million over the next four years, but thousands of smokers who persist will die sooner, saving billions in health care they won’t need and superannuation they will never get.

Couple that with renewed concerns about national superannuation as the post-war baby boomers grow grey and retire, add murmurings that those billons would be better spent on the young, and it appears that New Zealanders’ values are tilting away from an emphasis on social well-being to the predominantly economic.

Treasury officials aren’t crude enough to say so – perhaps it didn’t even enter their heads – but the subliminal message of their fiscal analysis of smoking, readily extendable to pensioners, is: “If you want to do your bit for the country, kindly die.”

Of course such chilling advice does not figure in public policy. But it would be a logical outcome of an insidious change that has happened in many countries over the past 30 years. Countries with market economies have been gradually morphing into market societies. The difference between them is huge. Market economies centre on whatever can be freely bought and sold, with market forces determining supply, demand and price. Governments target policies toward ensuring that economic activity really does serve the needs of people.

Market societies, by contrast, absorb the values of the competitive marketplace, and as far as possible apply them to all social institutions. Instead of the economy serving the people, the people serve the economy – and lose value when they do not. In market societies the broader human values that have long characterised those societies are eroded. On this theme Michael Sandel, who teaches moral and political philosophy at Harvard University, writes: “A market economy is a tool – a valuable and effective tool – for organising productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour.”

(Sandel will be familiar to many through his series Justice, just ended on TV7. Market values seeping into public broadcasting are set to axe the channel on June 30, and with it valuable programmes like his.) Sandel says that as market values become supreme they crowd out or degrade non-market values that are worth caring about. He cites the incursion of market values into health, education, family life, the environment, art, civic duties, criminal justice, public safety and recreation, and says: “These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.”

Market reasoning appeals superficially because it is non-judgmental. But judgement is essential.

“Our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price,” says Sandel. “It has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.”

The so-called “silver tsunami” is one area where economic considerations threaten to crowd out non-market values. That will intensify as superannuation becomes payable for longer and longer beyond the present eligibility age: scientists seeking to manipulate genes to retard ageing, or to prolong life by periodically replacing worn-out body parts, predict a new normal life-span of 125 to 150 years. In a world where the population is already ballooning, that would be an achievement but not a virtue. And it would impact hugely on future generations.

But the debate should also focus on quality of life, the contribution older people make to families and communities, and the wisdom many bring to discussions from their life experience. As Australian legal and medical ethicist Margaret Somerville says, “Elderly people who are able to remain curious about life, God, art and the world, and who believe they are making a contribution, have much to teach us.” Each life is to be valued not by what a person earns, spends, pays in taxes or costs the Government, but for its intrinsic quality.

Religions especially place the highest value on human life, without distinction between rich and poor, healthy and ill, smart and slow, children and the elderly. Instead they see in everyone the possibility for enrichment of the personality through nurturing life’s moral and spiritual dimension. Markets must always be subordinate to that.

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