Are there spheres of life that co-operatives, as businesses, shouldn’t operate in?
Met with near-universal acclaim, Michael Sandel’s latest book, What Money can’t Buy: the Moral Limit of Markets, expresses a widely shared concern that the market is invading all areas of life.
Economics, previously restricted to employment and industry, has over the last thirty years been seen as a way for organising everything from school life to social life.
Incentives for kids to read, the purchase of bodily organs, paying people to be sterilised – these and countless others examples show how the market is creeping into everyday life.
“Without quite realizing it,” Sandel says, “without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.”
Not only does this create unfairness, argues Sandel, where those with more money are able to live more happily and comfortably than others; it also corrupts important values like education and the human body by putting a price on them.
What does this have to do with co-operatives?
Co-operatives are businesses that have social responsibility, equality and concern for the community at their heart.
It is these values that have led co-operatives through history to take a lead on big moral issues of the day: working hours and gender equality in the early twentieth century, animal testing and fair trade in the late twentieth century.
Arguably, the marketisation of everyday life is one of the big issues of our day.
As such, it’s something co-operatives need to address as individual businesses and, ideally, as a movement.
If co-operatives offer an alternative to conventional profit-driven businesses, how do co-operatives distinguish themselves in the arena of the commercialisation of everyday life?
Is there some kind of principle that determines whether co-operatives should or should not do business in certain areas? How would we determine whether there are certain areas that co-operatives should or should not touch?
This issue is most alive in the area of public services. Co-operatives sometimes talk of going into public services to deliver a more innovative, responsive service that will better serve the users.
But they are also commercial organisations and, by working in areas previously to some extent immune from commercial pressures, they are actively introducing a market into them.
I know there are arguments to be had here. Points to be made on both sides. Nuances to be discussed.
But the point is, if co-operatives are businesses with a concern for the community there needs to be debate and a decision reached; co-operatives should not just drift into commercialising public goods simply because it’s a new market that could reap financial benefits for the business.
The issue of corrupting important values is also alive in relation to advertising.
Are there certain areas where co-operatives should not market and advertise their products? Schools and education? Social networking sites aimed at younger people? Advertising based on intrusive personal data?
Again, there is no definitive list, but there are important decisions to be made about what advertising is acceptable and what is not. Without the debate, co-operatives may drift into advertising that commercialises important public goods against their best intentions.
As Sandel puts it:
“Some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities. So to decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question – health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on on.”
It is businesses that are leading the way in commercialising everyday life.
It should be the most socially aware businesses, co-operatives, that are leading the debate about where the moral limits of the market lie.