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Markets? What Markets? When Philosophy meets Agora. PDF Print E-mail

6 October  Markets?  What Markets?  When Philosophy meets Agora - Joffre Balce

Joffre applies the principles of philosophy to eoncomics looking at what is needed for a just society.

What is philosophy? What is economics? We take these terms for granted? For the laity, there are those who look disparagingly at both fields it but while looking down on them seem to desperately attempt to be philosophers & economists. It is only fair they do, however, because philosophy and economics have heaps to do with their lives – from the rhetoric of policymakers and regulators and the technocrats and analysts that feed them the theories and information. How much do we understand their messages in these times of the uncertainty in the environment and the marketplace which has grown over the decades into a global concern? If we knew what the politicians and the economists know in the work of crafting a vital aspect of our social infrastructure, would we still decide and act the way we do?
Do not expect to come out of the discussion with the silver bullet to make poverty history, to reverse the effects of climate change or – on a less ambitious note – lead us out of the global financial crisis. This is philosophy and its primary duty is to raise questions & the core question tonight is what role do you play in the global marketplace? We begin with a representation of reality:  View the world as if it were a village of 100, and see.
Of the 60-80 living on less than AUS13.50 a day, 20-30 will be living on less than AUS$1.35 a day; and the lower one is at the rung of the village, the worse it gets. On a worst scenario, of the 6 who control 69% the known resources of the village – one will have to take a pay cut and work less hours or even have to tap their savings; at worse, if they lose their job, they get the benefits of severance and unemployment. Of of the 74 who own 31% -- 2 will lose their job, 5 will be working less hours and 10 will take a deeper pay cut, most of them having neither savings nor an effective welfare system to back them up. The 20-30 who have to struggle with  the 2% of what’s left for them, at least 2 will still lose their job and their numbers could still increase.  In other words, the misery of the bottom 60 will grow without any economic safety net.
In many aspects, the situation will remain practically unchanged: 93 will still have no access to the internet; 80 will be living in substandard dwellings, 32 will be illiterate (with only 1 completing a tertiary education), 24 will be living without electricity. Though 77 live in mobile phone range, only 18 have access to phones, including public pay phones.
Every year, 20 will still be consuming 80% of the village’s production and polluting the environment  by as much. The lowest 20 will have to make do with 1.5% of the produce and suffer even more pollution from the absence of public works and services; 35 will be malnourished (with 1 child dying of starvation) while 15 will still be overweight. At the end of the year, one will die while two will be born & so the village will population will be 101.
How safe is the neighbourhood? In the village are areas where 20 live in fear of death by bombardment, armed attack, landmines, or of rape or kidnapping by armed groups & in other parts there are all-in-all 48 who live cannot speak and act according to their faith and conscience without marginalization, harassment, imprisonment, torture or death. 
There are 30 children in the village who are not getting an education, even if it only takes  less than one per cent of what the village adults spend on security -- arming themselves & fighting each other – to put them all through school every year;  apparently that’s not how the village budget works. Around 15 of the villages are  overweight and if only they put ten cents off every dollar of food they spend on, it would be more than enough to succour the 35 malnourished into health & save the one child from starvation, but they don’t.  In fact, the strategy might not be enough to get rid of all their excess weight but maybe if they exercised more & put the energy expended into treadmils of power generation, they will not just be healthier but be plunking their share in reducing the pollution as well, but they don’t.
Instead, the 94 are scolded to make less babies because more of their babies means more mouths to feed & leaves less for everyone else, even if their contributing to the refuse is far less than the rest. Not a few villagers also tell the more industrious ones not to work as productively, lest they pollute the air, water & soil of the village. Out of a noblesse oblige of the top 10,  they a token of less than one percent of the village income to assisting the poorer 60 and lending to them as well. However, the top 10 make sure they make $4 out of every $0,25 of assistance and $0.75 of loans.
That’s how the global market works. Would you not want to move out of such a place but to where? There is only this planet for now. At best, those who can afford it will design gated communities to keep out the undesirables and provide a sense of security from the misery outside the walls.
Here’s another allegory. To level the playing field, here is a scenario. Imagine you & your family and loved ones are among 100 survivors ship/plane wrecked on an island & the composition is pretty much like the world. See where you belong:
• 59 would be Asian
• 14 would be American (North, Central and South)
• 14 would be African
• 12 would be European
• 1 would be from the South Pacific

• 50 would be women, 50 would be men
• 30 would be children, 70 would be adults.
• 70 would be non-white, 30 would be white
• 90 would be heterosexual, 10 would be homosexual

• 33 would be Christians
• 21 would be Moslems
• 15 would be Hindus
• 14 would be Buddhists
• 5 would be Animists
• 6 would believe in other religions
• 6 would be without any religion or atheist.

Honestly, would you want the island ruled on the basis of a majority who will decide what to eat, clothes, housing, where to live, what livelihoods will be more important and therefore paid more as well as other norms of social interaction? Or will you appeal to a common sense of humanity that we are born with equal entitlements to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness?
How will we provide for each other? Will all of us be required to farm, hunt or fish and enable the better farmers, hunters, fishers and gatherers to decide the economic fate of the majority? The those who cannot provide for themselves must settle to become servants of the more able. That after all, is the spirit of healthy competition. Or will we appeal to one another to allow us to pursue fields we are better at and in the end serve society better and strive for an enabling social framework to do so without driving any of us into poverty or dire need and dependence?
How will society decide who owns which parcel of land? Will it be the ability to stake a claim and defend it? What then will be the bases of having commons like parks, beachfronts, pasture and woodlands for everyone’s common use and leisure? Or will the basis be on the needs and abilities of the people who can make the best use of the location to serve themselves and from that ability to make the best use of their land with their labours contribute equitably to the community?
What of those too weak or unable to provide for themselves: the aged; the sick; the children; those with special needs? Do we leave the responsibility with the fitter and more able members of their families or the spirit of charity among the more fortunate parts of the community? After all, not all families have that burden and have their own lives to lead, which is the basis of the “pay as you go” system where only those who need the service pay for them. Or, do you want to work out mechanisms of cooperation where small portions of our income are contributed to common resources so that no one is marginalised by the duties and burdens of caring for others?
Let us expand the model further with this scenario. After having decided on the systems of economic governance, what if a second wave of shipwreck survivors are washed ashore, how do we treat them? Do we share the space left on the land with them or do we set conditions for them? As equals or as second class occupants of the island? How will we respond if they appeal to a common sense of humanity? Turn a deaf ear, perhaps, and talk of what’s practical. Probably the decision would all depend on what foundations of society we set for ourselves in the first place.
Now, let us introduce another interesting but contrasting scenario. What if the island is a part of a network of islands ruled by previous inhabitants who have the physical means of expelling people from the island or enforcing their will upon us. This happens after some time that we the shipwrecked survivors have settled and starting to lead regular lives. The rulers of the islands have their own set of laws that enable them to take slaves and trade as chattel human beings that are not of their kind and since we are not of their race, they can exert their rule of law over ours. Do we accept our fate in resignation to a superior force or do we defend ourselves and attempt to arrive at a modus vivendi – a means by which we can live peacefully and in a spirit of cooperation with the original inhabitants? Perhaps our choices will depend on the standards we set for one another before we encountered them.
The conclusion of this discussion is an open one, as are most philosophical discussions.
However, I have hopefully clarified the purpose of having philosophy and economics meet in the agora -- a marketplace of ideas and questions. On the one hand, we have caught a glimpse of the marketplace from a global and, for some perhaps, a narrow perspective of having reduced the world as we know it into a village of 100. On the other hand, by posing sensitive and serious questions to ourselves, on how we would think and decide if you were in  positions of strength and advantage versus a vantage point of weakness and disadvantage.
There is that marketplace within us that is in a constant negotiation between the rhetoric of principles and political pragmatism; between the common good for all and personal vested interests; There is a market in which there is not just an efficient exchange of goods and services but an authentic exchange of information so that negotiating parties can arrive at the best arrangement where they benefit. It is more than a simple matter called the rule of law.
Rule of law based on what: the principle of human equality or the ability and position to defend one’s self interests over the others? Until that conflict is solved among us and within us, this discussion will continue. In what direction? That will depend on what we believe is intrinsically driving us  to live our lives and interact with others. Do we simply live a life to obtain and acquire what is the best for ourselves or do we strive for a life to bring out the best in ourselves

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