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Trevor Hancock: Freedom from regulation helps sharks at the expense of minnows

The freedom to harm others for profit is the sort of freedom espoused by ­libertarians and neoliberals, writes Trevor Hancock.
Family members of people who died of opioid overdoses protest in Cambridge, Massachusetts, against Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma and its owners, the Sackler family. ­Trevor Hancock writes that one of the worst forms of freedom is the ­freedom of people and corporations to make money by harming others. Josh Reynolds, AP

Last week, I wrote about “healthy” and “unhealthy” freedoms in the context of the Ukrainian fight for freedom from ­tyranny, compared to the ­so-called ­“freedom convoy” that is seeking, ­Putin-style, to impose their idea of ­freedom upon us.

But there is a level of “unhealthy freedom” that is far worse, in terms of direct health impacts, than that exhibited by these “freedom convoys”: the freedom of people and corporations to make money by harming others.

The most obvious example is the tobacco industry, which has until recently been left free to make money for its investors by selling an addictive product that, when used as intended, kills and sickens people in large numbers.

But we have seen similar stories in many other industries, most notably in the recent epidemic of drug overdoses, due in large part to the massive ­marketing of opioids.

Then there are the alcohol, fast-food and other industries that have large adverse health impacts; the ­fossil-fuel industry that keeps trying to expand and still tries to confuse the public on the science of climate change — a ­technique they took directly from the tobacco ­industry; the pesticide and other ­chemical companies whose ­products harm the ecosystem as well as human health, and a whole host of other ­industries and ­products that quite legally do harm.

The freedom to harm others for profit is the sort of freedom espoused by ­libertarians and neoliberals. These ­freedoms, which Guardian columnist George Monbiot, in an April 2016 column, called the freedom of the pike (I would say “sharks”), often come at the expense of what he calls the minnows.

He wrote: “Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the ­freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the ­distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.”

These “freedoms” have another consequence: We have become obsessed with the need to get stuff cheap — at any price. As Monbiot notes, it leads to driving down wages and benefits to reduce costs and increase profits.

Bizarrely, the “right to work” ­movement beloved of American ­Republicans and their supporters involves weakening the power of unions to protect the rights, wages and working conditions of workers, attracting ­investors to their state to employ people in low-wage, ­low-benefit jobs.

The minnows are seduced into supporting such laws, which create jobs but make them worse off while feeding the sharks. But it also strengthens their need to get stuff cheap, because their wages are low, making this a self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling process.

Another consequence of the need to get stuff cheap is shipping jobs offshore to low-wage economies to reduce costs. The result is not just low wages, but no wages.

But it’s not only jobs that get shifted offshore, so, too, are toxic production processes and dangerous work. ­Following the logic of neo-liberalism, they go to places where regulations are less ­stringent and less enforced, thus ­avoiding the expense of safer production, to the detriment of the health of the local population and the environment.

The neo-liberal sharks, it seems, have been successful in pulling off a neat trick. In the name of populism, they have established a powerful political ­movement that encourages the minnows to support policies diametrically opposed to their own interests.

This is what happens when money becomes the prime value in society. We facilitate and support the system because we save or make money from it — and we don’t really care where it comes from or who gets hurt in the process, as long as it’s not us.

But as Monbiot warned: “Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts.”

Neoliberalism erodes democracy, and it erodes the power of the state to aid the weak and vulnerable, to support their freedom to achieve a good life, to thrive. It is the freedom of the sharks, not the minnows.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired ­professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.