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Abstract Concepts Don’t Pay

May 28th, 2013 Posted in Economics by

One of my pet peeves is a particular brand of wooly-political thinking whereby individuals denounce the ‘commodification’ of things that, according to them, shouldn’t be commodified. It’s usually things like health care and/or education which said individuals wrap in soppy, emotional rhetoric and reams upon reams of abstract concepts because those things are far too important to be treated like mere commodities.

It may very well be the case that health and education are so much more than commodities – in fact, I’m pretty sure they are – but that doesn’t change the fact that it requires huge amounts of commodities to be mobilised in order to provide health care and education. We don’t pay doctors, nurses or teachers in the warmth of human kindness; we pay them in cold, hard cash. Whilst many doctors are motivated by more than just their earning potential after graduation – it is nonsense to suggest that there is no mercenary consideration. The fact that being a doctor is more-often-than-not a highly paid job must make the prospect of, at least, seven years of study considerably more palatable. In a similar vein, medical equipment doesn’t grow on trees and a childhood’s worth of school books doesn’t magically appear once you declare education a sacred, profound and noble art.

My problem with this type of thinking is that whilst it does motivate various parties to action, it can just as easily justify action that doesn’t bring us health care and/or education that is higher quality, more accessible and more abundant. It can also justify action that is unhelpful and downright harmful. If health care is a human right then by slapping that pack of cigarettes out of someone’s hand – aren’t you merely upholding their human rights? I know this ties in to negative rights versus positive right but what I’m talking about here is a distraction from finding the solutions to the problems of public policy making. How best do we treat health care and education in a way that mobilises the resources we need to provide them? That may mean treating them like commodities.

Human beings need food before they need health care and education but we are more than happy to treat food like a commodity. A healthy, nutritious diet means so much more to an individual than just food – but treating food as a commodity, despite the distorted state of the global agriculture market, has meant huge and continuous increases in the abundance, quality and affordability of food.

If treating things like health care and education more like commodities means they become more abundant, more affordable and they increase in quality – wouldn’t it be worth dropping the soppy rhetoric?

3 Responses to “Abstract Concepts Don’t Pay”

  1. Jack Hughes Says:

    Go girl, go. You’re really on fire this week!

    Not sure how you’re going to take the Ned Flanders wing of the party with you, or the Helen Lovejoys.


  2. Jack Hughes Says:

    Sorry that sounds a bit snarky – I wish you well.


  3. Sara Scarlett Says:

    Haha! Thanks, Jack. I didn’t interpret it as snarky. I’ve just been more intellectually fertile in these past few weeks for some reason not known to me…


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