Who gets the flute?
AIMS' self-defining riddle
By JANICE HARVEY*
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
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
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
See shunpiking, April, 1999
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