Fracking duties

I don’t know whether Professor Michael Sandel supports fracking for shale oil and gas or not. What I do know is that he argues in his book What money can’t buy (2012) that the current ‘neoliberal’ trend for allowing markets to put monetary prices on goods and values like academic study, surrogate mothers, gifts, conservation, or even death tends to ‘crowd out’ (his expression) nonmarket values and can distort or corrupt the goods being offered for sale. One of the nonmarket values or norms he discusses is the sense of civic duty and responsibility – which is where fracking comes in. David Cameron has explicitly endorsed the proposition put to him at the G7 summit that opponents of fracking have a duty to support the controversial technique for extracting shale gas for sake of the UK’s energy security, especially from Russia. Presumably on the same reasoning opponents of fracking elsewhere in Europe have a duty to support both its development at home and arrangements to buy (cheaper) gas in from the USA.

One reason why I agree with Sandel’s call for a public debate on where markets are appropriate and where not is because of the role of nonmarket values themselves in relation to markets and monetisation of goods of all kinds. Maybe we can be happy about civic duty promoting the shale gas industry, depending, of course, on who we believe about pollution risks to the water supply or geological stability and earthquakes. But that is not the issue here. The point is that since state planning for growth (anyone remember the National Plan?) was discredited and it became accepted that economic security requires deregulation and reliance on markets wherever possible, the public aspect of nonmarket values – which includes civic responsibility and patriotism alongside communal values generally – is a promoter of the so-called neoliberal agenda, not an alternative to it. Those campaigners, as well as academic philosophers like Professor Sandel, looking for moral limits to markets need to be very careful. The lesson of fracking is: Watch those nonmarket values. They can bite.

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