Whose responsibility?

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Sunday, 2 November 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff

Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.

That was said almost 2,500 years ago by Aristotle. Religion continued the emphasis on social responsibility over the following millennia. Christianity has the parable of the good Samaritan and the Golden Rule, from Jesus saying ‘So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets’ (that is the wording in the modern English Standard Bible). Islam also emphasises community and, in fact, the foundations of Islam were based on reforming society; it also emphasises public, or communal, worship; and it has a strong emphasis on the social responsibility to stop your ‘brothers’ from doing wrong.

In the Western tradition, that began changing in the 1700s with the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke placing more emphasis on the self-interested individual, although Locke, unlike Hobbes, still believed humans were social animals but drew a clear line between civil society and the state — society creates order and grants the state legitimacy, and the state provides impartial justice and the impartial protection of property. Locke is considered the father of ‘liberalism’.

While Hobbes argued that humans in a ‘state of nature’ were constantly at war and life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, Locke saw that ‘state of nature’ as peaceful because individuals had a duty to respect the rights of others. This was a ‘natural’ moral duty.

More recent writers, like Hayek and particularly Ayn Rand, took individual self-interest further. Ayn Rand went so far as to suggest that the individual has no ‘natural’ duties to society, summarised as follows:

We only have one life and the good is to live it. Learn to pursue your own happiness by discovering the life-promoting values it requires. Think rationally and don’t bow to authority. Join with other people when you have real values in common and go your separate way when you don’t. Don’t try to be your brother’s keeper or to force him to be yours. Live independently.

To me, it seems that these more recent approaches have come to dominate our social and economic thinking, with greater emphasis on individual rights and less on the social ‘duty’ to respect the rights of others.

The modern neo-liberal economists certainly see little or no role for government. In their perfect world the individual is free to pursue their own ends in accord with the John Stuart Mill maxim that ‘The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’. But they tend to ignore the proviso in Mill’s statement: ‘so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to attain it.’

In reality, Mill’s maxim balances individual and social responsibility by stating that an individual’s freedom cannot come at the expense of others’ freedom (Locke’s natural moral duty to respect the rights of others). When we start taking account of ‘others’ in exercising our freedom and making our personal decisions and choices, we are exercising social responsibility. But there are also social responsibilities that are, or should be, communal. In our modern societies those responsibilities are often taken by government in the interests of the community as a whole.

In rejecting a social element in economics, economists refer to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ to justify that individual ownership, that is private property, is superior to common, or social, ownership. Although the idea has a longer history, the phrase came from a paper by Garrett Hardin in 1968. It was suggested that, when people grazed their herds on a ‘common’, a self-interested individual could improve his situation by adding one animal to his herd. The individual would gain the benefit. But if each individual adds one animal, or two, the common is quickly degraded. While the individuals retain the benefit of having an extra animal, the ‘cost’ (the degradation) is shared, leaving them with a self-interested benefit — before the failure of the system. Following this argument, and its corollary that Adam Smith’s benevolent ‘invisible hand’ of individual self-interest does not work for the commons, economists suggest that private property and the individual’s responsibility for that property remedies the situation.

That approach is based, however, on a misunderstanding of how commons worked. They were not ‘open access’ as the theory implies. Throughout the world where people shared resources, there were usually social and cultural rules that controlled that sharing. In Iceland, for example, the common resource of the fisheries was traditionally controlled by kinship rules that allocated spaces on the beach that were necessary for launching fishing boats. In some communities in India, the allocation of the common resource of water for farming was determined by community meetings. People accepted these approaches as essential for the well-being of their communities, or, in other words, were accepting social responsibility.

Hardin put the ‘tragedy of the commons’ in the context of population pressure and I accept that population pressure is a factor but not necessarily in the way Hardin interprets it. It is sometimes population pressure that will force people to leave a community, and enter the market economy, because the social rules prevent them having full access to the ‘common’. It is often on their return (even merely for a visit), with new ideas of individual responsibility, self-interest, and private property, that the decline of social obligations for the maintenance of the common accelerate.

It was the breakdown of social responsibility, of local rules and obligations that changed the use of the commons, and that itself arose from the introduction and growth of the market with its emphasis on individual self-interest. That can be seen in recent history in developing countries. As some people abandon the local rules to participate in the market, the ‘cost’ (in economic terms) of maintaining social obligations rises and no longer provides the greatest benefit, hastening the break-down of social responsibility. Rules of reciprocity, which were common in many societies and reinforced social obligations, also came under pressure from the influence of the market and the concept of private property.

In our own society, the health system provides an example of the roles of individual and social responsibility. A healthy population is, among other things, in the economic interests of a community or society, providing a healthy labour force and reduced costs in caring for the sick — ‘cost’ in this context includes time spent caring for the ill, which may mean two people withdraw from the labour force, the carer and the cared for. While an individual’s choices can affect their health (smoking, over-eating, not exercising) and, therefore, there is a case for individual responsibility, there are many other environmental and genetic factors that contribute to disease over which the self-interested individual has no control. Social responsibility is taken on by government to the extent that it attempts to control those external factors by, for example, pollution controls, food and drug safety, disease surveillance, occupational health and safety and even urban planning that allows for healthy environments, including access to exercise amenities (parks, walking tracks and so on). The neo-liberals would not agree with some of these. They are more likely to stress that the value an individual puts on their health is reflected in the price they are willing to pay — hence the growth of private fee-paying gymnasiums, let alone private health care.

Stressing the rights of the individual over the health of the community can have serious implications. In the case of major illness, we generally accept that individuals, even neighbourhoods or whole communities, may need to be quarantined — as in the current Ebola outbreak in Africa, or an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900 when many blocks in and surrounding the current CBD were quarantined, then cleaned, and people moved into camps. This is a clear case of social responsibility over-riding individual rights but I’m not sure how the neo-liberals would deal with it philosophically. There is also a tension between individual and social responsibility even with minor illness. If I have a cold or influenza, should I exercise my right to earn a living and go to work, or should I stay at home and not spread the illness to others? If I spread my illness, am I impacting the right of others to earn their living? It can be argued that paid ‘sick days’ for employees is a socially responsible way of dealing with this.

You would think that providing health care would be a ‘public good’ to be provided by government as a social responsibility but that is not necessarily so when one reads the economic definition of a ‘public good’. The economists usually consider that the market has responsibility for the efficient allocation of resources and governments the responsibility for public goods — this is the economic separation of responsibilities.

Economists define ‘public goods’ negatively, in the sense that they are basically goods the market cannot provide at a profit — no concept at all that there may be a social responsibility or a social benefit in government providing certain goods and services irrespective of the market.

For an economist, a public good must be ‘non-excludable’ and ‘non-rivalrous’. The first means that it is not possible, or not cost efficient, to exclude people from benefitting by the provision of the good. Fireworks displays are a simple example: I could set up a fire works display and attempt to charge people to attend but people could easily watch from a short distance away (possibly even from their own nearby homes) unless I set up a large exclusion area, and that may not be feasible or may be too costly.

The second, ‘non rivalrous’, means that the consumption of the good by one person does not preclude it also being used by another. If I watch the fireworks that does not stop other people from watching, or my use of a park does not stop others from using it.

I have seen sewerage systems listed as ‘public goods’ but it would theoretically be possible to have a system where people could be excluded by disconnecting them, as can happen with electricity, but that could have wider health implications that could not be restricted to the individual concerned (the very reason sewers were first constructed). So there is a socially responsible health aspect, not ‘non-excludability’, in ensuring that all people remain connected to the sewerage system but that social responsibility is missing from the economists’ definition.

The market is not in interested in ‘public goods’, as defined above, because ‘non excludability’ creates the ‘free rider’ effect: that is someone can benefit without paying — the person watching the fireworks from their own window. The market places more emphasis on ‘non-excludable’ than ‘non rivalrous’, so suppliers in the market will happily create a price for non-rivalrous goods but won’t become involved in non-excludable goods: in this context, sporting events and cinemas can be considered non-rivalrous (many people can use the product at the same time) but they are excludable (one person or 80,000 can be allowed into a sporting event — it just depends on making a profit).

Despite that, the neo-liberal approach has seen more and more goods and services moved from the public to the private domain blurring the separation of economic responsibilities. That also moves decision-making rights regarding the good or service from one agent to another and involves, or should, a shift of the associated responsibility. So if former public services are now provided by the market, should the firms in the market also bear the social responsibility that goes with them? The neo-liberal economists claim that minimal social responsibilities should be borne by the market, using Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ to justify that self-interest has social benefits.

Corporate social responsibility is a significant issue. It rose to prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s but had almost disappeared by the late 1990s. It is making a comeback but the predominant economic philosophy remains that the duty of a CEO and a board is to maximise returns to the owners of a firm (the shareholders). It is argued that ‘social responsibility’ conflicts with the ‘duty’ to maximise returns, and also cannot readily be measured so there is little point in insisting that it should be part of a firm’s obligations. There is, however, an alternative argument that being a ‘good corporate citizen’ is in the long term interest of a company and the value it is able to return to its shareholders. Unless a company is intent on maximising earnings and profit in the short term and then folding (as some obviously do), a company able to sustain its earnings into the future does require some acceptance of social responsibility and good corporate citizenship. It is when they realise that their ‘image’ is important for sales, that these issues may rise to the fore.

For current ‘commons’ like the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, economists argue that a degree of ownership is required to stop degradation, such as trading systems for reducing CO2 emissions, or tradeable quotas for fishermen, not that the problem can or should be remedied by government regulation. But if government in a democracy is representing the ‘will of the people’, then it may have a social responsibility to maintain the ‘commons’ for the people irrespective of the market. The UN is close to that view in relation to CO2 and climate change — but not the current Australian government.

What have companies been doing for over two centuries but ‘free riding’ on the rest of us by pouring their waste into the commons of the atmosphere, oceans and rivers. It is because the market has robbed the people of their control of the commons that private agents can exploit it; and also because many firms, following the neo-liberal economic agenda, don’t accept they have a social responsibility, neither generally nor in relation to the commons.

The neo-liberals ignore that people do not always act in their own self-interest. Social relationships and cultural values (social inclusivity) can mould decisions — these also shape our social responsibility. We support our neighbours in times of trouble, during floods and fires; ordinary people will run into a burning building to save someone they don’t know; people stop at road accidents to help if they can; people will care for a lost child until a parent turns up; and so on and so on. Despite what the neo-liberals think, social responsibility still exists in the hearts of the people and we are still a social animal — as infants we learn to be human in a social context, through the ‘others’ that surround us.

We should be demanding greater social responsibility, not just the promotion of individual self-interest, from companies and from government. Will we ever get social responsibility from our current government? Of course not, as it is too easy to see on which side of the fence it falls in this debate.

What do you think?