Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings
I watched a BBC politics programme last week that included a discussion between a politician and a philosopher. The politician was speaking with practised fluency about the virtues of the free market. The philosopher asked him whether there was any thing or any activity which he, the politician, might think was inappropriate for marketisation. He hesitated. It's hardly the sort of question politicians are usually asked. The philosopher made a suggestion, 'What about human kidneys?' The politician was emphatic. Absolutely not. There should be no market in human kidneys.
Of course, none of this is hypothetical. One magazine I read yesterday contained a striking photograph of a group of men in rural Pakistan, showing to the camera the scars across their bodies where the surgeon had removed one of their kidneys. They were poor, and kidneys have a price in world markets.
Jesus once asked 'What can a person give in return for his life?' In some parts of the world that is a question that has already received an answer. Your kidneys, eggs, sperm, blood, and – according to one paper yesterday - even surrogate wombs, are all costed.
The philosopher in the television studio was making two points. He was first saying that we should try to be clearer about why we think some things, some activities, should not be subject to market transaction. He was also saying that when we do extend the reach of the market we should be aware that it can affect our attitudes.
For instance, some years ago an idea was floated that the way to ease the pressure of large numbers of refugees coming to Europe was to persuade poorer nations outside Europe to accept them instead - for a cash payment. But had that happened it would have changed and coarsened our attitude towards refugees. We would see them only as problems, not human beings in distressing circumstances.
A time of austerity presents similar risks over such complex areas as the balance of public spending and private enterprise. In such cases, the philosopher was not advocating a particular course of action but saying we should be asking questions to see what any unintended consequences of any imbalance between the two might be.
To take an example. If getting unemployed young people back into work is a transaction with a monetary value, does our attitude towards the young unemployed subtly change? Do we begin to see them as some thing with a price tag? Does their humanity start to disappear?
A great deal of the ministry of Jesus was spent trying to get his contemporaries to see not categories of nuisance – sick people or beggars - but this man and this woman with their particular needs and hopes. That challenge remains even if our context is different.