Maggie Thatcher’s Christmas Gift Card

When was the last time you received a Gift Card at Christmas? Were you pleased that you could choose a present for yourself instead of leaving the big decision up to your granny? Or were you just disappointed at the thoughtlessness of the gift giver?

Recently I’ve been re-reading Michael Sandel’s seminal book on the ever-expanding realm of economic theory, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel is no anarcho-syndicalist (thank you, Monty Python) or socialist. He sees the importance of the traditional market economy to ordering the economic transactions of society. However, he also sees the march of Economics into areas of life which once seemed beyond its remit and worries that the market economy is slowly morphing into a market society.

One of the examples which he gives of this ’commercialisation effect’ is our increasing tendency to give each other vouchers or straightforward cash instead of a personalised gift. To the utilitarian, this exchange makes perfect sense: we each know what we want for ourselves more than others do. So, if we give each other gift cards or cash (the ultimate credit note, redeemable anywhere) we maximise utility. But where does this leave thoughtfulness, the personal touch, the feeling of the gesture? For example, would you give your mum a cash gift for her 60th birthday without feeling a little bit naff? Does reducing gift-giving to the level of a utilitarian transaction diminish it somehow?

I believe that it does, and I share Sandel’s concern about the impact that commercialisation is having in Britain today as the dominant socio-political ideology of our time. Gift cards are just a symptom of a phenomenon which affects much more than Santa’s Christmas present list.

Although the dawn of the market society in Britain has had many catalysts, it was the High Priest of Capitalism Margaret Thatcher and the ism which she spawned which did most to establish the altar of commercialism in the modern era. Without the eighteen years of Conservative government in the late 20th Century (eleven of them under Thatcher), it’s hard to imagine the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail and the commercialisation of the National Health Service (for example via the tendering process) going ahead. Thatcher’s shadow looms large over British politics and the British media, to the extent that the legislation to introduce these changes was passed with barely a whimper from those of us on the Left, let alone the wider public. In the 1970s, such changes would have led to social unrest.

But should we care in 2013? Surely market reasoning can introduce greater efficiency into the public services which we enjoy in this country, and the cost-savings that we so badly need to help us address a record national debt of £1.3 trillion? There is no doubt in my mind that the public sector does have lessons to learn from the private sector and the rigor of the market economy.

However, returning to Sandel’s rationale, I fear we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water if we allow our public services to become subsumed into the ideology of a market society. The means do not always justify the ends. As Sandel suggests, the market society model can lead to the moral values which underpin our society – for example, the selfless act of gift-giving – being ‘crowded out’ by more utilitarian concerns, or quite simply the bottom line.

For instance, the commercialisation of the Healthcare System – like the tendering out of certain NHS services to Virgin Care and other private healthcare providers – fundamentally changes the nature of healthcare and the way in which it is provided. By necessity, it’s the Profit Principle which predominates in a commercial venture: the profitability of the healthcare provision matters most, at least to the owners or shareholders of the company providing it. By default, this pushes the principle of Service for its own sake down the list of competing priorities.

Commercialisation of public services can alter the way in which they are delivered too. In recent years, we’ve seen how using low-paid, low-skilled (and cheap) staff in privately-run care homes can create an ‘it’s just a job’ culture in which an attitude of distain for the patients can arise. Services which safeguard the dignity of vulnerable patients are more likely in a context where those serving see their job as a vocation which is highly-valued by society, and view good service as a worthy end in itself, not just a means by which to secure the next lucrative contract.

And commercialisation also affects the way in which services are received. If I’m a client – as opposed to a patient – I may be more likely to feel short-changed (with all the impatience, and lack of understanding that this can entail) if I don’t receive the standard of care that I expect for myself, however high or unrealistic my standards are. If you’ve spend any time in an Accident & Emergency reception recently, you may know what I mean.

So the means do affect the ends, and in this case in a way that diminishes the service which keeps our country healthy. Or for that matter in a way which disadvantages those who live in a far flung location. Why should a business, whose raison d’etre is primarily to make a profit, prioritise a service which is cost-intensive but delivers very little financial gain? Sorry, Isle of Lewis, it’s just too awkward (i.e. expensive) to deliver your Christmas presents this year.

The benefit of a publicly-owned postal service on the other hand is that it aggregates the risk for the family living on a small island. Their post is relatively affordable to deliver because the volume of deliveries in London makes the enterprise profitable overall. It’s solidarity which presides, not narrow selfishness.

In the race to the bottom line which commercialisation of our public services brings, we are in danger of brushing aside the values on which they have previously been founded: civic virtue, solidarity, compassion, fraternity, fairness and even-handedness. Instead, utility, efficiency, wealth and individualism predominate.

I think Sandel sums the danger up well when he says:

“This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. … Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles which grow stronger and develop with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously”.

So, this Christmas, if you receive a Gift Card, do remember and thank Maggie.