Let’s begin with a story. This one comes from The Guardian, Jason Hickel’s opinion piece titled “Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong.” In it, Hickel argues that, although a body of neoliberal rhetoric claims a reduction of poverty over the last 200 years, this claim is based on a false premise. Namely, it takes as its starting point the idea that people with no income within traditional capitalist economies are intrinsically destitute. It therefore measures success by the number of people now making at least $1.90-USD-per-day (the poverty threshold) within formal economies. What it doesn’t factor in, according to Hickel, is that many of these people had more stability before regulatory practices took away natural land and resources, and made worker-consumers out of vast swathes of humanity.
He also notes that $1.90-USD-per-day is an “obscenely low” standard for not living in poverty, writing that
Scholars have been calling for a more reasonable poverty line for many years. Most agree that people need a minimum of about $7.40 per day to achieve basic nutrition and normal human life expectancy, plus a half-decent chance of seeing their kids survive their fifth birthday. And many scholars, including Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, insist that the poverty line should be set even higher, at $10 to $15 per day.
So what happens if we measure global poverty at the low end of this more realistic spectrum – $7.40 per day, to be extra conservative? Well, we see that the number of people living under this line has increased dramatically since measurements began in 1981, reaching some 4.2 billion people today. Suddenly the happy Davos narrative melts away.
We talk about the world being a complicated place, one with intricate problems requiring intricate solutions. And certainly, the details of implementing specific policies to accommodate all relevant needs are intricate.
But sometimes talk of complexity can obscure simpler, if also far broader issues–and one of our most fundamental, as agents in the human collective, is the value we place on competing forms of regulation. That value informs how we measure human well-being. It affects how we talk about specific issues like end-of-life care, reproductive health (including abortion), education, and nation-state security. And, of course, it shapes our approach to economic justice.
Today I want to talk about that regulatory impulse as it relates to socio-economic outcomes… but this is a difficult subject to enter into without getting distracted by specific models of, say, capitalism or socialism. What I’m talking about runs deeper than either ideology, though, because in some ways both capitalism and socialism are on the same side of the spectrum: the side that says we must organize, and regulate, and control. Capitalism does this by securing property against redistribution by the State. Socialism does this by securing property through redistribution by the State. And both have weaknesses that can lead to the exploitation of state resources for individual gains.
More importantly, though, both rely on regulatory practices, all the better with which to monitor competing notions of human progress: income levels, workforce participation rates, citizen scores.
What does that reliance on regulated economies also tell us about ourselves?
Remembering the Waters in Which We Swim
Growing up in a highly regulatory culture, I remember being staggered by the realization that this was just one way to live. I was a young teen watching a documentary (the name now escapes me) on what seemed at the time an up-and-coming way to live ethically within Western capitalism: namely, by supporting “fair-trade” goods.
But the documentary wasn’t extolling the virtues of fair-trade; rather, it pointed to new struggles emerging in this industry. Using African coffee-growers as an example, it pointed to the fact that many farmers did not have deeds to their land, let alone official business registration. As such, they needed to enter into a new world of regulation in order to compete in international markets. This presented a staggering learning curve, sharply diminished the communal nature of working the land, and also siphoned off significant profits to feed the bureaucratic machine. Families that had fluidly held land in the past now had strict limitations on ownership, and if the title-holder died it could be difficult for family lacking formal papers to continue in good standing. Moreover, the level of communal investment in working a given plot of land lessened with the rise of formal proprietary relationships–while the territorial conflicts increased, creating sharp divides of winners and losers in the new economy with thin profit margins.
So why take part in this new system at all? Because fair-trade markets were supposed to create balance in the wake of free-trade. Because if someone else is successfully monopolizing a given industry through an increase of bureaucratic business practices, then for everyone else to play the game they need to become administratively savvy, too.
This blew my wee mind, but didn’t significantly impact my day-to-day life–because I continued living in the same society, with considerable financial pressures that kept me worried about playing the game well. As such, I bought into quite a few ideas along the way that tend to be marketed as similar release valves. Most recently, for instance, I was made to realize that I’d been hoodwinked by microfinancing–not so far removed from fair-trade practices, really!–which was initially presented as a way to alleviate poverty but instead has been used to broaden the victim-base for predatory loans.
But What’s the Alternative?
It was only when I moved to Colombia, and again confronted the reality of other ways of living, that I remembered the problem with measuring societal health by levels of financial income and market participation. Here, many families in rural areas are “poor” by financial measures, but since they live on fincas with year-round fruit-bearing trees, they can easily get by on maybe one family member working outside the home, while the others raise pigs and chickens, and various crops often sold roadside. And by “get by”, I mean that such homes–rich in communal purpose–create many a contented life.
Indeed, Colombia’s labour force is largely off-the-books, with some 40-50% (depending on the study) not formally salaried. To some, this is horrifying, because without formal salaries Colombians have no hope of paying into a pension for their old age. (And even for the folks who are salaried, pensions are not guaranteed, as I discovered during my first year when made an “Independent Labourer” by my company.) Thus, the model almost requires a familial safety net, because in the absence of guaranteed state income, one’s children and siblings become your retirement plan instead.
Secular vs. Religious Regulation
So let’s talk, then, about the dangerous myth that secularization from god-belief somehow frees us from some of religion’s underlying pressures. There are some who believe that humans can’t help it: we love oversight, we respond better when it feels as though we’re being watched, so we’re going to buy into systems that keep us regulated no matter what mythology is attached. (Certainly, here in Colombia, where statues of the Virgin Mary are everywhere, I can’t help but wonder if all our research about the impact of public faces–digital or cut-out–on crime reduction is a little behind the game.)
Anyone who has ever used a FitBit or similar tracking device recognizes this regulatory thrill, but as a mammalian species only a few decades into the use of digital technology, and only a few centuries into rigid industrial economies, do we really have a lock on their greater impact? Whether we live in a socially democratic nation where bylaws exist for practically everything, and every industry requires an immense amount of certification for participation… or a highly plutocratic nation, where money is equivocated with speech and used to ensure lax consumer protectionism to leverage every last penny from an overworked general population through the “free” market… have we secular folk forgotten that monitoring is not an intrinsic part of the cosmos?
What Scares Us About The Lack of Oversight?
Abortion, oddly enough, is an issue that’s helped me recognize this nervousness about a lack of direct oversight–and more importantly, our inconsistent application of that nervousness to policy-planning across different cultures and portfolios.
Canada, after all, is a country without legal restrictions on abortion, which means that abortion happens in lockstep with cultural norms. And oh, how terrifying that must be for those who think that women are just raring to carry nearly to term, then terminate at a day less than nine months. If there’s no law against it, why wouldn’t they, right?
Except that… cultural norms by and large do work in the Canadian context. From the University of Ottawa’s 2015 fact page on the subject, here’s what cultural norms (i.e. the most up-to-date science regarding fetal viability outside the womb, plus comprehensive sex-ed and access to contraceptives) have produced as an approach to abortion:
Over 90% of abortions in Canada are done in the first trimester; only 2-3% are done after 16 weeks, and no doctor performs abortions past 20 or 21 weeks unless there are compelling health or genetic reasons. The risk of maternal mortality is probably greater in carrying a pregnancy to term (7.06 per 100 000 live births) than the risk associated with abortion (0.56 per 100 000 terminations) (Grimes D. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2006; 194: 92-94).
But! But how? Surely without direct government oversight, everything is permitted, and since everything is permitted everything awful will come to pass?
Oh, wait, I’m among secular folks. We know that line’s a bunch of cockamamie bull, only a little less creepy than the “Thanks for sharing your inner serial killer!” rhetoric of “But without God, what’s to keep us from raping and murdering?”
…Or do we?
Because I am fully in favour of allowing cultural norms to dictate abortion practices in a well-informed country like Canada, but here in Colombia, even though the law technically permits abortion under extreme circumstances like rape and risk to the mother’s life, it has been immensely difficult to set up actual clinics for these procedures in this highly Catholic culture.
So… shouldn’t I be in favour of the state imposing regulations to protect vulnerable women from this cultural norm? Especially since it’s infuriating to see Catholics prefer a higher abortion rate on principle, rather than support policies that actually reduce abortion in the first place?
The Partiality Problem with Our Regulatory Impulse
I’ve written repeatedly in this column about our dangerous predilection towards groupthink. When it comes to economic justice, I favour state redistribution of excess wealth to bolster social safety nets and improve general human welfare. I also tend to think that the protection of individual life matters more than the protection of corporate interests. So, yes, I am 100% vulnerable to the regulatory impulse, and to expecting rigorous state oversight to be a perfect answer to human ills.
Yet I have also seen counterpoints, both in Canada’s approach to abortion and in rural, family-oriented models for the construction of self-sustaining communities. And these give me pause. I’ve cautioned before against binary thinking, so rest assured I’m not suggesting that we should fly willy-nilly into the world of predations that could also arise in human systems with minimal oversight.
What I am suggesting, though, is that we need to think carefully about the underlying trust issues in our regulatory impulse. In relation to which issues does it most frequently arise? Do we stump for increased regulation when it comes to economic justice, or criminal justice, or environmental justice, or the maintenance of communal order through police and military?
And if not for all of those, why not for all of those? What are the cultural factors that allow us to trust our fellow human beings in some policy spheres more than others?
Because maybe we’re wrong–maybe we shouldn’t be trusting our fellow human beings in certain domains. Maybe billionaires gonna billionaire! But we won’t know until we confront the assumptions underlying our lack of regulatory impulse.
Or maybe we’re right–maybe we can trust our fellow human beings more in certain domains than others. And if so… if there are cultural factors that make this trust both possible and reasonable… can we nurture those same cultural factors in other policy sectors as well?
No perfect answers, folks. Only tools for further, personal consideration. So tell me, fellow humanists: Where is your regulatory impulse strongest? Where is it weakest? And to what underlying social factors do you attribute so stark a divide?