Who gets the flute?
AIMS' self-defining riddle


SHUNPIKING, Atlantic Canada Today, May, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 33

In recent columns in the Halifax Chronicle Herald and the Telegraph Journal ("Who gets what is the dilemma of our time"), Don Cayo presented a societal dilemma to us to solve. Which of three boys quarrelling over a toy flute should be the one to take it home, the one with musical talent, the one with no toys, or the one who made it out of a piece of bamboo he found? This simple scenario is posed by Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen in one of his many books on economics. We will accept for sake of argument that a higher power does indeed have the right to impose a judgement on the situation.

Cayo explains that the principles embedded in each of the three options represent familiar theories of how property might be treated by society: the utilitarian approach allocates scarce resources to those positioned to put it to best use; the socialist approach attempts to achieve equity among citizens through redistribution of wealth; and the property rights approach protects private ownership above all else. Given our individualistic, consumer-centred society, the North American preference would most likely favour the little boy who found the bamboo and made the flute with his own hands.

Cayo's riddle is not fortuitous. He's the immediate past-president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies on whose board sit executives of the most powerful corporations in the region, including the fisheries cartel -- Highliner, Clearwater Fine Foods and Fisheries Products International. (1) AIMS has been the foremost lobby group for "property rights" in the fisheries, Cayo's third option.

Of course there are other options.

Option Four would be to allow one of the three to take the flute by force, a scenario played out continually on the world stage. Let me propose Option Five, particularly as a counterpoint to the property rights model.

Let's be honest. When viewed in the social context in which we all live, the intrinsic value of an object or undertaking to which an individual may lay claim is difficult to attribute solely to any one factor or person. To go back to the flute, did the bamboo with which it was made come from private or public land; were the maker's skills acquired in a publicly-funded institution? To extrapolate, what civic obligation is attached to our personal enrichment when we cannot isolate our success from the inherent, often intangible support we receive from the society in which we live? In truth, what we perceive to be ‘private property' is often derived, actively or tacitly, from some degree of appropriation of public property, resources or services.

Nowhere is this more striking than in the fisheries. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Herb Dhaliwal, is attempting to strike agreements with First Nations to govern their participation in commercial fisheries. The Supreme Court has given them the right to make a "modest livelihood" from fishing. How now to respect aboriginal treaty rights?

Ottawa's response has been rooted in the private property paradigm. DFO has been buying back licences from existing fishermen to distribute to native communities. The buy-back price is based on the market value of the licence and boat, as if the owner has equal claim on both. They don't. Clearly, the boat and gear is theirs to sell at whatever price they can get. The licence, however, is another matter.

Fishing licences were issued by the state and originally sold for a token price (as low as $10), conferring on the holder the right to fish a publicly owned resource. Until about thirty years ago, anyone could get at licence. One would assume, then, that the licence holder would have some reciprocal obligation to the state -- a common model is a royalty payment on the harvest (like stumpage fees on Crown wood) -- and of course the obligation to abide by state-imposed rules. In that same vein, we would not expect the licence holder to be able to resell for a profit a right he/she has received from the state.

In reality, the current fisheries model requires no royalty paid on the catch. Further, a 10 dollar lobster licence can be sold at market price -- rumoured to be as high as $350,000 in Nova Scotia. Licence holders can enjoy unearned windfall profits, a direct financial benefit from a thirty year-old federal regulation to close the fishery to new entrants. Such aberrant privatization of public resources has continued with the free allocation of private fish quotas. Still no purchase price or royalties paid to Canada commensurate with the market value of the property, yet the privilege to fish is now extended to become the right of ownership to a certain portion of those fish, including the right to lease or sell that quota for profit.

Thus there has been de facto transfer of wealth from the state to first one generation (cheap licences), then another (private quotas) of both individuals and companies engaged in fishing. They receive this gift only on the merit that they were in the right place at the right time. Now allocated, the licence and quota resources have been lost to everyone else, unless they pay a market-driven price to the "owner" -- not the state.

In a further perversion, to make room for new aboriginal fishing enterprises, the state is paying somewhere close to market price for licences and quotas it granted at virtually no cost (as the tension around this issue grows, so will the licence buy-back price). At the same time, DFO seeks to limit the number of aboriginal fishing enterprises by the number of licences they are successful in buying from existing fishermen. One band, with unemployment near 80 per cent, was offered two licences and two boats -- a gesture that belittles the treaty right to earn a moderate living. If the offer were accepted, since the treaty right to fish is communal and not individual, it would be left to the band to do the hard work of figuring out how that scarce resource would be shared within its needy ranks.

Within this issue are the seeds of a fifth option for the dispensation of the flute -- remember the flute?

The communal right to fish is rooted in an ancient culture that predates our own market culture by millennia; it is intrinsic to the native psyche, and strangely foreign to our own. It implies common ownership of resources, and a community obligation to steward them in perpetuity -- traditional native governance obliged leaders to consider seven generations into the future in their decision-making -- and equitable access to the resource by community members.

This is the antithesis of the system into which the native fishery is being injected, with predictably disastrous results. There is a palpable dissonance between native and government voices on the issue. The cultural divide is huge; the enforcement arm is saying, concede or we will confiscate your gear and imprison you.

That is how far away our society is from conceptualizing Option Five to the flute dilemma -- the communitarian or co-operative option (these aren't synonymous but they are complimentary: co-ops would be the economic vehicle in a communitarian system). While we have some recent history with this (co-ops and credit unions are the concrete manifestation of early 20th century movements), it has not succeeded in pervading the way we organize ourselves socially.

Yet it has the potential to address many forces that stratify us socially and economically. It recognizes that we do not live in isolation, and our personal success or failure is largely due to the advantages or disadvantages we experience in community. As with the fishing licence situation, much of what we consider ‘ours' is a product of our own initiative in tandem with our position in community or our degree of access to public services, institutions or resources. A cooperative approach to managing these resources where everyone has equal access and equal responsibility would go a long way to evening out some inequities, while allowing individuals to optimize their place in community.

So who gets the flute? All of them and none of them. A communitarian option would see it go to a toy or instrument lending ‘library', to which all would have free access -- available for the benefit and enjoyment not only of these but of everyone in the community.

The reciprocal obligation would be that it be returned in good condition.

*Janice Harvey is a freelance writer and marine director, New Brunswick Conservation Council

1. See shunpiking, April, 1999

Comments to : shunpike@shunpiking.org Copyright 2004 New Media Services Inc. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. Copyright of written and photographic and art work remains with the creators.