Regulation as solidarity not censorship


Homeless Persons WeekLast week was Homeless Persons Week. It also seemed to be the week of regulation.

The Prime Minister demanded the states regulate the price of electricity, News Limited continued its campaign against further regulation of newspapers, and fresh evidence of systematic rorting by British banks sparked calls for further financial regulation.

Regulation is always a controversial issue because it brings into play two values that stand in tension with one another: individual freedom and solidarity. Opponents and proponents of regulation usually ignore the claims of the value that presses against their case.

The argument against regulation is that it always infringes on personal freedom — in this case the freedom to say and write what you think, to engage in profitable transactions, and to run a sustainably profitable business. These freedoms are important both for personal flourishing and for a prosperous society.

It is common ground that personal freedom may need to be limited when it infringes on other people's freedom. For example, my freedom to stand in order to get a better view of the football may be curtailed if, by standing, I will prevent the person sitting behind me from getting any view at all.

But regulation can be justified on broader grounds than the need to resolve conflict involved in the exercise of individual freedoms. We depend on others for our capacity to exercise our freedom, and society works in human ways only if we attend to the good of the whole society, including its weakest members. The state is responsible for regulating society in a way that ensures that personal freedom is enhanced in serving the common good.

In a word, personal freedom needs to take account of solidarity.

The hacking and other media scandals in the United Kingdom showed how by exercising freedom of speech in the interests of making profits, newspapers could destroy people's reputation and lives. The claims of solidarity would argue that regulation is needed to protect the weak against the power of large corporations.

Similarly the unrestricted freedom of electricity companies, particularly of state monopolies, to increase the cost of a service so vital for daily living, could cause great harm to the weakest in society who could not afford to pay their bills. Again solidarity makes an argument for regulation.

Arguments for financial deregulation usually place great weight on the right of individuals to exercise their freedom to trade. They emphasise the benefit conferred upon society by removing restrictions on this freedom.

The argument from solidarity asks whether such forms of trading as in complex derivatives and nanosecond share trading contribute to the common good.

If they limit the power of exchanges to do their proper job of providing capital for business, and so to the welfare both of workers and of the poor, then there would be an argument for curbing them despite (and because of) the enormous profits they brought to individuals and companies which engaged such trading.

The tension between individual freedom and solidarity means we should not ask whether to regulate or not to regulate, but how to regulate so that personal freedom is enhanced in a way that serves the good of all. Regulation does not imply control over activity but provides a framework in which it can take place.

It would be important, for example, for media to develop and live by a strong code of ethics, and to be accountable to a strong body independent of the media and of government that could adjudicate on breaches of that code. This body could also ensure that people publicly wronged could be equally publicly vindicated. The details of appropriate regulation would need to ensure both freedom of speech and accountability in its exercise.

Regulation of the electricity industry, as in any industry in which there is a public service involved, would regulate profits in a way that ensured an adequate sustainable provision of electricity. Whether regulation attached to the cost of electricity or to assistance for those most in need is a matter of detail.

Homeless Persons Week brings home what regulation should be about. In any society homeless persons are the ghosts at the banquet of individual freedoms. They point to the places and the human cost where solidarity has broken down in personal lives and in public policy. They also make the claims for solidarity in personal lives and in government policy. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Homeless Persons Week, News Limited, electricity prices



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Hope Rupert Murdoch et al make time to read your article Andrew. Jesus always stood with the most vulnerable and they are the privileged guests at his banquet. It is indeed a fine balance between individual freedom and regulation. The family unit (whatever configuration that family may be) is usually seen as the place where we learn about 'freedom' and 'solidarity'. In many people's lives, though, this unit has broken down and so society at large has a greater responsibility than ever before to support and protect those who 'fall through the cracks'. This is not just the job of church welfare agencies, or so-called secular welfare agencies, but the job of each and every one of us. To love our neighbour.

Pam | 13 August 2012  

Alcoholism is a major factor in homelessness and other social/personal fractures - thankfully the Jesuit winery Seven Hill isn't posting its ads next to this article (or is that just coincidental?)

AURELIUS | 13 August 2012  

The regulation of electricity prices would be most welcome by those on low incomes and pensions. A pensioner in Tasmania has an income of just over $10,000 but the electricity bills have skyrocketed to over $4,000 a year in Tasmania. The state government supports this price gouging while many on low incomes try to avoid using electricity as much as possible in order to put food on their tables, pay rent or mortgage and many other bills. Regulation of electricity charges needs to come about quickly.

Trent | 13 August 2012  

The Vatican is working toward allowing only institutions and their communities that have canonical recognition to use the word Catholic on the top level of their domain. That's so people Catholic and non-Catholic, will know a site is authentically Catholic.
Doesn't Jesuit Communications count as such after all these years.

L Newington | 13 August 2012  

Under your argument, NEWINGTON, my personal blog can use the Catholic domain by virtue of my baptism in a Catholic Church - canonically that's all that matters.

AURELIUS | 14 August 2012  

I'm wondering if all Cathnews sites will have that option, with comments submitted that argue on issues disapproved of by the church, that being the relevant Bishops Conferences of course.
It's amazing what we can do by the virtue of our Baptism isn't it.

L Newington | 14 August 2012  

Seems you are placing too high a value on the internet's system of domain naming - domain names are merely an IT/institutional matter I presume. The Catholic Church already has the "Nihil Obstat" tag for publications (Nothing contrary to the Doctrine of the Faith) - and then bishops's imprimaturs etc. But I can't see your point about needing approval for comments and discussion on contentious issues. Power structures in the church aren't as undemocratic as they may seem to the outsider. Many of the writings questioned by church censors throughout history are now regarded as spiritual classics and inspirational works of divinely inspired mysticism.

AURELIUS | 15 August 2012  

Maybe you should inform the Vatican they're puting too much value on domain naming, wanting to decide who is allowed to use the internet extention "catholic".
But then I just may have misunderstood what I was told and it only refer's to them.
I always stand to be corrected.
By the way do you always use the pseudonym Aurelius?

L Newington | 15 August 2012  

In my opinion, Andrew has confused the issue of regulation to protect the weak and vulnerable with regulation for price control. I have no links with the electricity industry and owe it no favours. However this distinction needs to be drawn. Early in my career, working in SE Qld, I needed to analyse infrastructure lifecycle costs and at that time, the electricity industry was fully regulated. I was told to assume that electricity prices would rise at about 1% annually. However, over time the electricity industry was corporatised. A little of the history is here: and In February 1985, the National Party government of Joh Bjelke-Petersen sacked 1,100 electricity workers, all union members employed by the South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB). With hindsight, the aim was to contain rises in the cost of electricity, but the immediate effect was to reduce working conditions for remaining employees. The electricity generation sector was deregulated in 2007 by the Labor government of Peter Beattie. It is clear to me that cost pressures for maintaining existing electrical infrastructure and borrowing needs to expand it due to greater demand for electricity led these governments (of opposing political colours) to attempt to quarantine themselves from blame for consumer price rises by establishing a separate quango, to which they hoped the blame could be deflected. The bottom line is that costs need to be recovered in some way. Now we had corporations which not only had to recover the cost of production, but the cost of advertising, marketing, PR, and profit. Prices are now rising at huge percentages annually. If it can be proved that electricity corporations are making “enormous profits”, then by all means, regulate to more closely scrutinise prices and reduce these to socially acceptable levels. But I am sceptical of such claims, and suspect that regulation would lead to no more than a token reduction in prices charged for electricity. Regulation of electricity prices in this environment therefore would be another name for redistributing wealth. It is saying that we want to protect poor people from the actual cost of the resource and charge others extra to pay for this protection. That is a value judgement. It is not about protection of personal freedoms or protection against powerful organisations such as newspapers, or rorting by banks, or protecting the weak against the power of large corporations. It is not about infringing on personal freedom to say and write what one thinks. It is simply a case of establishing who will pay to sustain a necessary service – in this case electrical power supply. If someone does not pay, the business will simply close and the service will end. That will not serve the common good. Solidarity in this case is society as a whole resolving to subsidise the service for those who cannot afford it otherwise.

Frank S | 15 August 2012  

Thanks for a well argued, thought provoking article. I have no disagreement with anything within it. I would like to add that here we are dealing with human nature. Unfortunately 'self regulation' seems to fail time and again. Whether we are talking about banks, media, importers trying to evade customs or quarantine regulations, or a host of other enterprises. The article discusses balance between rights and responsibilities and people with their own agendas will constantly seek to shift the balance in their favour or to subvert the rules. So, everything needs to be constantly under review and will be due to the never ending rebalancing efforts of the players. Also, when rules are instituted the arbiter should not be the industry concerned; the fox can never be trusted to be in charge of the henhouse.

Martyn Smith | 18 August 2012  

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