Sunday, October 03, 2004

This post may contain traces of nuts

If there is one guaranteed way of making someone dislike you, it is to tell them that you don’t think their job should exist and that the one thing keeping them alive (correct food labeling) shouldn’t be compulsory. It was this week when C’s closest friend from Australia – K the physicist – was on the receiving end of exactly those sentiments.

It was quite evident from snatches of conversation over a few days that we came from opposite ends of the political spectrum even though we got along very well on a personal level. It was also evident that we had to talk about politics at some time as I don’t just let small things in conversation go. I use my favorite weapon in the world – the word ‘why’.

We were bumbling around the kitchen after M and C had left for their respective offices one morning and we had decided to make porridge. This alone conveys the ill state of my being at the time because at any other point in my life I would shudder at the mere thought of a hot bowl of slimy, quivery, bodily-fluid-like stuff. That day I thought it sounded nice.

We had two types of porridge oats – the ones that have simply been flattened by rollers and the ones that have been put through an office shredder. The latter, I believe, are considered to be ‘quick-cooking’ oats. They’re for the kind of people that think the difference between taking 10 minutes to cook something and taking 7 minutes to cook something justifies the invention and use of an entirely different product. I say if your morning routine so desperately needs 3 minutes shaved off it in order for the rest of your day to fall into place you have some rather deep-seated problems with organization.

Either way, the flattened-but-otherwise-structurally-sound oats had the warning ‘produced in a factory that utilizes nut products’ on the ingredients list. One of those warnings that is the butt of jokes at parties and usually an indicator of the litigiousness of our society. It wasn’t really something I had ever paid attention to as a serious dietary consideration.

Unfortunately, K has the kind of allergy to peanuts that you don’t want to have. The kind that suddenly, viciously, kills you. My allergies to foods are a complete joke when you consider I only end up lethargic or curled up in a ball of whimpering pain for a while after eating the wrong foods. She ends up either very, very ill or very, very dead. She reads those food labels and the nut ones are damned important to her.

So it was interesting to hear her vent her frustration at the company that produced the oats. Her reasoning was that she should at least be able to eat whole foods…otherwise what’s left?

And she used the one word that’s pretty much guaranteed to start a political and philosophical tirade from me – ‘should’. When people say something ‘should’ happen or ‘should’ be done or ‘should’ be available, somewhere deep, deep inside that statement is the fact that our overreaching government is going to be the one to instigate, enforce and monitor whatever that thing is.

What would it mean for the rolled oat company to produce those oats to her specifications? Having worked in a food production factory as a student, I know that it’s damn hard to clean things like conveyor belts and food preparation areas (to the standards required for K’s particular affliction) between all products. It’s certainly possible, but expensive in terms of time and manpower. It’s also completely unnecessary for the majority of the company’s customers to be satisfied with the quality of the product.

So instead of using her economic power (and that of those others afflicted by the same condition) to either switch to another manufacturer or create a manufacturer of her (their) own, she believes that it is her right to use coercive political power – backed by the force of the courts, the police and the military – to force the manufacturer to change their production process to suit her. This is nothing short of thuggery dressed in a suit. Yet it’s something that we are taught is part of the natural ‘process’ of living in a society.

The company, of course, could also build a separate manufacturing plant for all non-nut-related products. But, really, why should it? Who is going to pay? Will K put up the millions of dollars for the new plant or for the extra processing time? I seriously doubt it. In reality, if the company is forced to do this kind of thing, they will pass on the costs to their consumers – ALL their consumers. This means that people like me (and most of you) who have absolutely no need for this extra feature in our oats must have it and must pay for it. We are, in effect, paying for someone else’s problem not because we choose to but because we have to – it would be illegal for an oat company to only cater to our level of requirement.

If a law came into effect tomorrow coercing manufacturers of ‘whole’ foods to produce everything without peanut contamination I doubt that there would be civil unrest on the streets. Yet it would represent another horrendous encroachment of government onto the personal freedoms of its citizens to trade freely.

How is this possible? How could it be that in a seemingly civilized, free society this kind of thing can quite easily happen?

Well, I (unsurprisingly) have a theory. I think that we have simply allowed two ideas to proliferate unchecked and they are coming back to bite us – quite unceremoniously – on the backside; the idea that a company isn’t just there to make a profit and the idea that a company should not be allowed to discriminate against customers on any basis. Let me address the impact of each idea in turn.

Companies exist to make money. To produce that lately so-very-dirty word – profit. I had noticed that as far back as the beginning of my business degree, companies had to justify their existence in terms ‘wider’ than the profit motive. That their *reson d’etre* had to be some ‘noble’ goal and that profit was the dirty little secret at the core of every enterprise to be shunned and ashamed of.

In reality, what responsibility does a company have other than returning maximum returns to investors? Only that in striving toward this primary goal they should not commit any acts of fraud or use force. If they’d like to make the world a better place for being there or produce the best products or make a great workplace for their employees – great – but never at the cost of all the profit to be made. If doing these things is in the long term interests of the company and give a short term loss, so be it, as long as the decision is one made by the company and not by some outside party – interested or not.

The absurd idea that is the ‘stakeholder’ rather than the ‘shareholder’ should be the topic of another post as it deserves attention all of its own. Suffice it to say that no-one else has a claim to the running of the company other than its owners - not employees outside their contracted responsibilities, not unions, not activists, not ‘communities’ and certainly not governments acting on anyone’s behalf.

But in allowing for the ‘fact’ that a company should not only be concerned with the profit motive, we have taken away a company’s moral right to pursue maximum returns. We have also taken away an important argument against the aforementioned kinds of process-changing laws. A company can no longer stand strong and state that they refuse to do something because it would impinge on their right to profitability – they don’t have a right to profitability anymore.

In taking away the profit motive, a company is only really left with the delivery of its goods and services as a reason for its existence. This is quite dangerous ground as some therefore claim that it is the company’s responsibility to provide those goods and services to all, merely because of its ability to do so. The argument, then, that the oat company MUST provide oats suitable for K because it is responsible for delivering oats to ‘our’ community/society comes about. The company becomes a veritable slave to the citizenry of a country and their needs or whims.

My second point is that a company should be able to choose who it trades with. Discrimination? Absolutely. As much as it is a right of any human to associate and trade with whomever they wish – whether that decision has been made on rational grounds or not – it should be the right of any company to do the same.

So it follows that it should be the right of the oat company to decide that trading with K is simply far too much trouble for the profit that trade with her gives, that most of their customers have far less demands on them for the money received and that they ONLY wish to trade with those ordinary customers.

But that right has been taken away. The right to discriminate, defined correctly as ‘making a clear distinction’ with whom you would like to trade is no longer available to companies. Discrimination instead is now synonymous with bigotry and oppression instead of an individual’s right to free association.

K’s affliction is a burden of hers, an unfortunate quirk of her own body and something that she has to deal with, pay for and live with for the rest of her life. Just as a cancer patient’s burden is their own, as a bankrupt’s failure is theirs and a paraplegic’s misfortune theirs.

To assist anyone in this situation where that person is loved and respected enough to deserve that assistance is laudable. It is a credit to the person that others take such an interest in their welfare. However to force complete strangers to modify their businesses to be less profitable, to change their lives and practices, to use inoffensive language or to give up their own property, time and money for this other person is, quite simply, criminal.

We now live in a society where the burdens of others become our own burdens by virtue of belonging to the same geopolitical territory. We have no choice as to whom we help as help has been promised to all – irrespective of character or deservedness. Our job is only to work and to pay or to take, to exist as a burden to the system or as a contributor – never as an individual independent of the government mandated cycle of benevolence. The shackles of slavery have never been quite so intangible.

(Despite this conversation, curiously enough, K and I got along very well. Perhaps because we had the mutual enemy of C to tease and were kept busy by C organising a large party for her friends on Friday night.)

M

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