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Talking Straight to Mr Free Market About Fairness

It's time to tell him straight: You are pretty damn good at many things, mate. You are simply the best at growth - no one comes near you. But you are starting to look a little overweight, what with all the mergers and acquisitions?

(Photo by Sean Hawkey)

Why are we so very polite to Mr. Free Market?

I mean, he definitely is a 'he' carrying all of the very worst unreconstructed macho characteristics, such as being terribly full of himself and insensitive to others.

But we are so in love with Mr. Free Market - so certain that he is indeed our Valentine's Day Mr. Right - that we dance around him, singing the praises of his great achievements. We point to the long list of people and countries he has saved - all, no doubt, true.

Yet we are totally overcome by shyness when it comes to his failings. We whisper them behind our hand, shrugging our shoulders, explaining away the limits of poor old Mr. Free Market:

'It's hardly his fault, he can't control everything......'

'It would all be fine if only we didn't have (now please take your pick or add in your own explanations from the long list of possible answers) e.g.: welfare state scroungers/immigrants/corrupt bad African governments, too much government red tape/etc.'

'Well, it is true that inequality is out of control, that 80 people control as much wealth as half the world's population, that big pharma makes more money from helping white Europeans get it up than from developing an Ebola vaccine (as Giles Fraser pointed out in The Guardian last year), that the 14 million farmers growing our cocoa reap just over 3.5-6 percent of the retail value of a chocolate bar.'

In fact, we are so polite that we shudder at the thought of pointing out these failings, let alone actually suggesting corrections to Mr. Free Market.

Yet, given that he is not in fact a perfect Adonis, why can't we just have a mature conversation about this? Tell him plainly what he can and cannot do? Put limits on his limitless ambition, his addiction to growth, growth, growth at all costs.

It's normal - we try to help drug addicts control themselves and Mr. Free Market is an addict in the worst way. We have all kinds of constitutional complications to balance out the power of Presidents and Prime Ministers. We agree on limits for all citizens - we say that they cannot in the pursuit of their own desires, kill or rob or maim. And we used to have a web of global laws and social expectations of companies.

But gradually, one by one, we have lowered our norms and lifted our regulations. So now we just let Mr. Free Market do whatever he wants chasing every single ambition with no inhibition, nary a thought. He thinks he is above controls- because we let him think that.

But seriously, why? It's not like he can walk away from us and go chasing off after another planet. He won't get into a strop and refuse to buy or sell any goods anymore. It's because he too needs to buy and to sell, indeed he needs us to stay alive. He couldn't manage 5 minutes without us. So what are we all so afraid of?

Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, put it best when he said: "Power in food chains has long constituted a taboo. Indeed, the need to improve the governance of food systems in order to avoid instances of excessive domination by a small number of major agrifood companies is hardly ever referred to in international summits that seek to provide answers to the challenges of hunger and malnutrition." (Be sure to read this excellent report on balancing power in supply chains from the Fair Trade Advocacy Office)

Of course we do still have many controls on the free market at a national level. We have laws against monopolies, and unfair competition, we have minimum wage and health and safety legislation, we have controls on dangerous pesticides. But Mr. Free Market has moved beyond our little domestic turf - he's gone roving up and down the global street. And it seems we cannot get our act together enough to collaborate at that global level.

In fact, it's the very opposite: we're all so busy putting on our best dress to try and lure him into tea with me! ME! MEEE!- my workers are so much better than hers and cheaper I might add! I definitely will never try to put any controls or silly taxes upon you, my dear! Come to me, you can unload those nasty pesticides that were outlawed elsewhere here! Please come to me.....

Why have we forgotten all our history books and plays and poems? Surely we remember the central message of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely?

So it's time to tell him straight: You are pretty damn good at many things, mate. You are simply the best at growth - no one comes near you. But you are starting to look a little overweight, what with all the mergers and acquisitions? You don't always have to rush around chasing growth at any price.

At some point we all grow up. We want to snuggle down with our family and neighbours and value the gentle, kind moments of community, and we want to care for our elderly neighbour and our sick friend, the depressed young man and the stressed single mother, the homeless addict and the lost refugee, the cocoa farmer with no school in her village and the coffee farmer struggling with climate change.

It's true - focusing more on caring for others may not always help grow the economy in the short-term and it might even slow us down. But those people will help us be stronger and happier, more resilient and safer. A healthy relationship requires a long view.

So let's just say that we want a balance that includes ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable are not left behind as Mr. Market races ahead. And if we stand our ground, and tell Mr Free Market how it is, and that he has to follow these rules globally and these rules nationally, I think that he would soon adjust, and would calm down.

He might even find that he works better with that new, fairer set of global trade rules. I'm still not sure that he will ever win my heart - but it's worth a try.

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