Friday, May 05, 2006

Jim Traue: Old-fashioned greed to fore in attitudes

The conflicting opinions being expressed on whether Charles Upham's daughters should sell the medals for his VC and bar on the open market point to a much more substantial, and growing, difference in values in our society.

On the one side are those who see the medals as commodities, assets tradeable in the marketplace, while others insist that some things cannot, or should not, be bought and sold in the market.

However, the line between these positions is fluid, and it has shifted markedly over time. For several thousand years it was accepted that humans were chattels that could be bought and sold in slavery.

It was only in the early-19th century that the sale of votes was prohibited by law in Britain. In most Western societies it is now widely accepted that political power and influence cannot be bought and sold and we have laws against bribery and corruption. After a major scandal over the sale of peerages for political donations, laws prohibiting the sale of titles were passed in the early-20th century in Britain.

Criminal justice is not for sale; the bribery of judges and members of juries is a criminal offence, and now lawyers for the defence are provided at the community's expense.

Professional qualifications allowing people to practise as doctors, engineers and airline pilots, and success in examinations, are all fenced by government and professional associations from being bought in the marketplace.

In most Western societies, women are no longer owned by their fathers or husbands and are not tradeable by fathers. However, after centuries of legal prohibitions against the selling of sex, prostitution is now legal in several countries.

The mediaeval Christian church sanctioned simony, the sale of ecclesiastical offices, and the buying of divine grace, and had to go through a reformation to outlaw such sales of the sacred. Over time, societies have defined a number of separate spheres, each with its own set of operating principles and rules.

Michael Walzer, an American political philosopher, calls these "spheres of justice", and argues that widely accepted - what he regards as just - rules for the distribution of the social goods exist within each separate sphere.

Within the political sphere we accept as just the use of political power by our elected representatives and their public servants for the good of the community. However, we rightly protest if this political power is used by them to gain access to other social goods outside the political sphere, by accepting bribes and favours to enrich themselves, getting jobs in the public sector for their families and supporters ahead of better qualified applicants, getting access to better education, medical care, or housing.

We use strong words such as corruption and nepotism to show our displeasure, and back it up with criminal sanctions.

Money has its proper sphere. Within that sphere certain social goods are freely marketable, and a rich man can quite properly buy commodities, products and services, such as a better house, car, private medical services, and a better lawyer and tax consultant. Money does its work in the market, and the market is open to allcomers, even if they are not all equal.

What disturbs most of us is the conversion of one social good into another when there is no inherent connection. This is an intrusion, from one sphere into another, of an inappropriate set of principles.

The most obvious and common intrusion is that of money. Because it is the universal medium of exchange it has the greatest ability to seep across boundaries.

In most Western societies, after the social disasters of laissez faire during the industrial revolution, the boundaries between the spheres were made more impermeable by public opinion and legislation, and the power of money outside its proper sphere was curtailed.

But in recent years there has been a marked seepage of old-fashioned greed back into public affairs. Witness the use of their position by chief executives and their underlings in the United States to plunder, legally and illegally, the companies they are paid to manage to feather their own nests.

Witness, too, the growing number of prosecutions of public servants in New Zealand for misappropriation of public funds and accepting bribes, the furore in Britain over "loans" to the Labour Party by rich men in pursuit of peerages, and the downfall of politicians and lobbyists in the US for bribery and corruption.

Charles Upham found no difficulty in the 1940s in recognising the boundaries between the sphere of personal prestige, gained through exceptional bravery under fire, and that of personal financial reward when he refused a substantial monetary gift from a group of Christchurch citizens. But the line has shifted since then.

* Jim Traue is a former public servant and chief librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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