markets and morality

St. Jovite, Quebec, in the shadow of Mont Tremblant, has a street market every summer. Tents along Rue Principale last week shaded the tables filled with enough bric-a-brac to keep people looking for hours.

St. Jovite, Quebec, in the shadow of Mont Tremblant, has a street market every summer. Tents along Rue Principale last week shaded the tables filled with enough bric-a-brac to keep people looking for hours. In the heart of the Laurentians or every Thursday in Whitehorse, the liveliness of markets can’t be denied.

These markets come close to Adam Smith’s 18th-century concept of the market where producers and consumers knew each other and had unspoken but real obligations to one another. Markets built communities, didn’t destroy them.

Now, with distant decision makers, global markets and the implacable logic of consumerism, the market-community relationship, as well as the implied market-physical environment connection, appears truly broken.

The logic of the market today focuses almost exclusively on the bottom line. Profit pushes other considerations to the side. Consumers, as well as public and private-sector decision makers, are relentlessly prodded towards making bad but corporately profitable decisions. Obesity and environmental destruction can be seen as micro and mega markers of this reality. How do you encourage people and institutions to make decisions in their own long-term best interests? How can a “community first” concept of markets be restored?

Dr. Richard Thaler, a professor of economics and behavioural science at the University of Chicago, authored, along with jurist Cass Sunstein, a book called Nudge in 2008. It focused on a concept called libertarian paternalism. This is an approach to markets, which the authors first developed in an article entitled Libertarian Paternalism is Not an Oxymoron for the University of Chicago Law Review 70(4) in 2003. In it they proposed that public state and private institutions are allowed “to influence the choices of affected parties in a way that will make choosers better off.”

Libertarianism admires the efficiency of the markets in allocating goods and services. A fair number of its proponents, including some obvious federal and territorial decision makers, see attempts to control or limit the “freedom” of the markets through such measures as taxation, income redistribution in the form of welfare, health care or senior’s benefits as simply wrong-headed. The “paternalistic” portion of this political and economic concept “lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better.” The structured alternatives allowing people to opt out of choices provided for them is said to “preserve freedom of choice” and thus its SDLqlibertarian” aspect.

This “choice architecture,” Thaler and Sunstein argue, helps people who don’t act rationally in seeking their own best interests and interferes only minimally with people who do act rationally. What happens, though, when governments and corporations themselves don’t behave rationally? How can they be led to act in our collective long-term best interests?

Last week, premiers from across Canada gathered for their Council of the Federation meeting in Halifax. Once again, they sought to address rising health-care costs. Along with their Health Care Innovations Working Group, they proposed measures to reorganize purchasing, improve health-care delivery and create effective evaluation programs. Fine, but do these policy options really get at the roots of the problem of rising health-care costs?

Critics like Dr. Michael Rachlis, health-care analyst and associate professor at the University of Toronto, say the premiers are ignoring a key issue. In a Campaign 2000 media release Dr. Rachlis states: “Poverty accounts for at least 20 per cent of our health-care costs. If we can reduce poverty substantially and increase the quality of life for more people, we will reduce some health-care expenditures and prevent new costs in the future.”

York University scholar Dennis Raphael reinforced this view last week in a Halifax Chronicle Herald opinion piece by Stella Lord of the Community Coalition to End Poverty in Nova Scotia and Laurel Rothman, co-ordinator of Campaign 2000: End Child Poverty in Canada. In it, Professor Raphael states, “Thousands of accumulated studies have come to the same basic conclusion: The incidence of poverty is a severe – if not the most severe – threat to the health and quality of life of individuals, communities, and societies in wealthy industrialized societies such as Canada.”

In modern markets we now meet economically and politically. These should reflect our conscious choices, our beliefs and our morality. Bureaucratically engineered and ideological limited alternatives or media manufactured compliance just are not good enough.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact