Individuals will follow their self-interest by making economic decisions to act in a certain way until the costs are too high. They will buy more goods and services at a lower price and fewer at a high price. This sort of rational behaviour will lead to the most efficient use of resources and will increase economic output. If individuals satisfy their needs through the market, everyone has the possibility of gaining at the same time. This works at the international level as well. Sure some will gain more than others, but the point is that everyone will gain more than they would have otherwise. Therefore, if individuals follow their self-interest, they are actually providing for the common good.
Firstly, individuals are not equal in the market. Some have more power in the market-place than others and can influence the market for their own individual benefit. Some can affect prices because of their wealth. Others might have more information, access to technology, communication networks, or security forces.
Secondly, the capitalist marketplace promotes the growth of monopolies that can create or destroy markets (and societies) depending upon the interests of the largest players. It is not rational for wages to be lowered through repression. It is not rational for export-processing zones to destroy the lives of women workers because of overwork, sexual harassment, toxics and other health and safety violations.
As Elaine Bernard said in a recent speech at CUPE Ontarios workload conference, the market place promotes only individual wealth, but as public sector workers, we know that there is something else to be protected and nourished: thats the commonwealth . 1
Finally, self-interested individuals will not be concerned with producing goods they cannot make a profit from, even if everyone in society needs them. Public goods, such as clean air, cannot be sold, so individual corporations will not consider it efficient to produce. They must be regulated to do so. Even in midst of the so-called knowledge economy, corporate actors will tend to pay only for research that benefits them directly. If they can make a profit from health care, or private prisons they want in. If childcare, or bulk water exports, or private utilities can be made to turn a profit, theyre knocking down the doors.
But, for health and safety provisions, ergonomics, time off the job, more full-time jobs, higher wages, pensions, benefits and the right to control over our working lives, we dont wait for the market to provide. We must depend upon collective bargaining, on the one hand, and on political strategies that raise our issues in the public arena, on the other.
1.Dr. Elaine Bernard, Workload Conference, CUPE Ontario, Toronto: March 2001.