Do markets commodify children?

Attempting to shield children from the profit‑seeking entities within the marketplace is both a futile and counterproductive cause.

Of the many evils attributed to human action within markets is that the interest of suppliers to reap profits from their ventures could override the interest of consumers.

That the adult consumer might seem to lose out in the cut‑and‑thrust of market transactions seems sufficient warrant for market critics to call for the strict regulation of goods and services supplies, at the very least.

But if the consumers in question happen to be children, then any profit‑making that transpires is portrayed as a monstrous act which should be admonished under all circumstances.

Those who doubt the merits of markets often take their arguments one step further, suggesting that people who strive to profitably supply products to, or for the benefit of, children, are either wilfully or unintentionally ʻcommodifyingʼ them.

There are alternative understandings, for example Marxian and communitarian notions, as to what commodification is said to represent, but it generally appears to mean that a human being, and his or her interest, is in some way being debased by suppliers as an object amenable to market exchange.

These concerns are invariably accompanied by fears that growth in the scale and scope of market exchange relations is eating away at traditional activities undertaken within civil society, impersonally transforming them into outputs traded among people at prevailing market prices.

For‑profit involvement in education and child care is particularly prone to criticism by people who once were children, for the very obvious reason that millions of Australian children today are serviced in these fields.

Responding to a proposal for a for‑profit schooling chain in Sydney, president of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos, stated last year that ʻour children cannot be seen as a commercial resource, a plaything for companies to make profit.ʼ

As for child care, an example of the anti‑profit sentiment was of a social work and human services academic who said that ʻmuch of Australian child care has become a commodity, a private enterprise where federal child care subsidies are used to fuel the record profits of child care companies. Run for profit and by men!ʼ

Those of us with rather long memories might recall the invective that was often directed toward former child care provider, ABC Learning Centres, with the many claims that the chainʼs efforts to earn a profit necessarily led it to overcharge and skimp on service for kids.

The commodification thesis still remains alive and well, as adjudged by numerous comments on a recent ABC Drum piece, by Trisha Jha, raising concerns that child care deregulation would apparently give operators a green light to rake in profits at the expense of children in care.

The notion that growers, manufacturers, service providers, and retailers see a child as nothing but a consuming unit to push products to runs as an argumentative undercurrent beneath other parts of the economy.

You see shrill charges of child commodification made in relation to childrenʼs clothing, food retailing, toy manufacturing, and even company sponsorship of events in which children are present.

It appears that at the heart of the commodification story is a sense of disquiet, among some, that the producing or retailing parties to a given transaction could earn a profit from the activity.

This disquiet is not dampened by an appreciation that, in the context of the market process, transactions are voluntarily entered into by, and conducted between, willing parties ‑ in this case, the supplier and, in most instances, the parent or guardian acting on behalf of children.

Though there are very limited, yet terrible, exceptions to the rule, it is entirely reasonable to presume that most parents and guardians act with the best interests of their children in mind, and this applies as much to economic decision‑making as it does to the cultural, moral and social decisions adults make for children.

Most parents wisely choose to tap into the know‑how and expertise possessed by others in society, who just so happen to be for‑profit providers, buying the likes of food, clothing, housing, care, education, entertainment, and so on, both for themselves and their young loved ones.

Now, if adults genuinely feel their children are being treated as commodities, subjected to overpricing and being furnished with poor quality products or services, they generally wonʼt hesitate to take their business elsewhere and, in this social media age, let everyone know all about it.

So the onus, then, is always on the supplier to strive against other suppliers to cooperate with the customer ‑ that is, the child represented by their parent or guardian ‑ as best they possibly can.

To put all of this in another way, the market doesnʼt commodify children and other human beings; it serves us and our children.

And the growth of the market is not a conspiratorial supply‑side scheme to transform more of the population into commodified playthings; it is the extension of economic interactions validating the core idea that people adjudge they are being served in better, more effectual, ways over time.

It is a regrettable fact of our modern Western life that government has come in (or, rather, help itself) to deliver more of the sorts of services that children consume.

These developments seem to please anti‑marketeers no end, not least because the haunting apparition of commodification troubles them no more, once government steps in to halt any potential manifestation of for‑profit provision.

But when the profit and loss mechanism is annulled within the sphere of public sector activity, as it must do, how can anyone possibly know if government is providing the best services for our children in education, and the like?

It is nigh on impossible to get an objective answer to this question, because the all‑important gauge of registering economic value is removed from political and bureaucratic decision‑making.

What transpires under the public sector regime is a politicisation of activity, where government officials by force, rather than market participants by consent, make decisions about what, how, when and where to provide goods and services, and who should be compelled to pay for them.

With the backing of brute force behind them, governments need not interact with people justly or with any concern for their preferences or inherent rights, much less arrive at mutually satisfactory terms with them, unlike those allegedly evil profiteers who enable ordinary folks to deposit food in their stomachs, dignify themselves with clothing, put a roof over their heads, and allow them the means to traverse the four corners of the earth.

And pity the poor family with children, who have little or no choice but to have their child receive services from the potentially sub‑standard governmental provider in their local area.

Arguments against the role of the market in the discovery and allocation of resources on the grounds of commodification risk, in favour of a more extensive role for government in our lives, is grounded either in ignorance about the beneficial properties of profit‑making, or worse still self‑interest in favour of the big‑government status quo. And, in short, there is nothing praiseworthy to be stated concerning any of those impulses.

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28 Responses to Do markets commodify children?

  1. To put all of this in another way, the market doesnʼt commodify children and other human beings; it serves us and our children.

    Nicely put.

    I’d take it further and say that only an individual can commodify another individual. Ascribing commodification to blind ‘market forces’ or ‘capitalism’ or ‘society’ or whatever is a cop-out, and hides the real perpertrators.

    A person in a clothing manufacturing company – in their design area – decides to design t-shirts for under-10 girls that say ‘Daddy’s Little Pole Dancer’. They pitch this to management and promise them increased sales.

    A person in management makes the final decision about that product being manufactured – yes or no.

    A person who chooses stock for a major supermarket clothing chain then makes the decision about whether this would sell in their shops or not, and whether it’s a good idea to have this stuff on the racks because of the backlash it might potentially cause.
    If the stuff goes on the racks, then individual mothers will make the choice to buy that item for their daughters to wear. Or not, as the case may be.
    Individuals commodify – or in this case, sexualise – other individuals. There has been a series of individual choices made by actual people in this process. The kid is just on the end of it.

  2. whoever said this switched to another TV channel when the people of Berlin were tearing down the Wall with their bare hands.

  3. CameronH

    Most of the anti profit people come from sectors of the community such as unions who benefit from big government. There is also another large group who want government control so that the process can be politicized. This is a feature for them and not an unintended consequence. A trapped audience of young minds to distort with socialism and communism.

  4. Empire Strikes Back

    What transpires under the public sector regime is a politicisation of activity, where government officials by force, rather than market participants by consent, make decisions about what, how, when and where to provide goods and services, and who should be compelled to pay for them.

    Great post Julie. I will add “politicisation of activity” to my personal armoury.

    If the stuff goes on the racks, then individual mothers will make the choice to buy that item for their daughters to wear. Or not, as the case may be.

    So true Philippa, but then the leftist will claim that the mother bore no personal responsibility because she was also a victim of white patriarchy. Go figure.

  5. isn’t the availability of cheap child care central to the ability of women to have a full career and a family?

    Claudia Goldin’s The Long Road to the Fast Track is about five generations of women on a long and winding road starting with “family or career” to the latest generation of graduate women whose goal is “career and family.”

    In between there were three generations of women whose experiences were job then family, family then job, and career then family.

  6. Boambee John

    “president of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos, stated last year that ʻour children cannot be seen as a commercial resource, a plaything for companies to make profit.ʼ”

    He is happy, however, if they are seen as a resource to justify ever growing numbers of teachers (to join his union), receiving ever higher salaries.

    Surely if profit is not to be made from children, Mr Gavrielatos should campaign for teachers to be paid only an allowance that covers the costs of preparing for and attending their workplace, not a salary. Everything above those costs is surely “profit”?

    Children should not be “a plaything for [individuals like teachers] to make profit”.

  7. stackja

    Children should not be “a plaything for any [individuals like teachers] to make profit”.

    Unions destroying jobs.

  8. Milton Friedman pointed specifically to the anonymity and impersonal nature of the market as a way that people that would otherwise hate each other if they met on any other basis could instead co-operate, work productively together and become friendly with each other.

    “The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy.

    It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.” Milton Friedman

    Benevolence is not enough. The market ensures that the unpopular and unpleasant get fed and have jobs. The market is the basis of social peace as well as prosperity.

  9. nilk

    If these people want to bang on about the market commodifying children, then they come back to us with an explanation of how creating children for the purpose of satisfying adults’ desires for the latest in ambulatory accessories isn’t commodification.

    The market is what it is, and selling to kids is one of the things it does.

    I may object to tshirts with a ‘Daddy’s Little Pole-dancer’ on it, but that’s up to me, not anyone else to decide.

    The statist bleeding heart nanny scumbags can sod off and let me educate my child as I choose – and that includes educating her about the markets and how they work.

  10. .

    CameronH
    #1249190, posted on April 2, 2014 at 11:26 am
    Most of the anti profit people come from sectors of the community such as unions who benefit from big government.

    Correct. I bet Gavrielatos has a big house and has superannuation which is reliant on mineral exports or fleecing Gen Y on residential rents.

    Surely if profit is not to be made from children, Mr Gavrielatos should campaign for teachers to be paid only an allowance that covers the costs of preparing for and attending their workplace, not a salary. Everything above those costs is surely “profit”?

    Teachers make money off other people’s (i.e., children’s) ignorance. Pediatrician’s make money off sick kids.

    What bastardry.

  11. .

    Damn that last apostrophe…etc.

  12. MT Isa Miner

    nilk

    #1249316, posted on April 2, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    If these people want to bang on about the market commodifying children, then they come back to us with an explanation of how creating children for the purpose of satisfying adults’ desires for the latest in ambulatory accessories isn’t commodification.

    The market is what it is, and selling to kids is one of the things it does.

    I may object to tshirts with a ‘Daddy’s Little Pole-dancer’ on it, but that’s up to me, not anyone else to decide.

    The statist bleeding heart nanny scumbags can sod off and let me educate my child as I choose – and that includes educating her about the markets and how they work.

    Yeah.

    But that needs effort when you are shopping and discipline to resist the ” everyone else has one”. So it works both ways- the market offers choice ,so it should, and once the cash is spent the choice tells me exactly what sort of things that parent is thinking about their kids. A kind of flag language win :win.

    Like tats and burkas, market choice is semaphore.

  13. BM

    Spot on Boambee John, exactly my thoughts only better expressed!

  14. Rococo Liberal

    Brilliant post.

    I have just been reading comments of lefties at the Drum which demonstrate exactly waht you are saying.

    They are all convinced that privatisation is a failure that has caused service to become worse, prices to rise and CEOS and shareholders to be the only ones to benefit.

    They are convinced that government enterprises are automatically ‘fairer’ and more ‘responsible’ because the evil profit motive is absent. They don’t seem to realise how evil politicisation and bureaucratisation of life can be.

    They all seem to be hung up on ‘society’ (which they often conlate with government) benefiting. Thus you get kooks who tell us that employers have a responsibility to bring on the next generation of employees.

    It seems that these people can’t accept that a transaction that satisfies both parties is somehow possible or desirable. Everything has to be looked at from some casuistical viwepoint whereby it is judged not on its own efficacy but on its social efficacy.

    It is the what I call the macro fallacy, writ large.

    I blame the lefty educationalists who have not prevented so many of charges from learning that “it’s not fair” is not an effective argument in a complex world.

  15. nilk

    But that needs effort when you are shopping and discipline to resist the ” everyone else has one”.

    I honestly don’t have a problem with saying no. I don’t get why anyone should have a problem with it.

  16. brc

    Others have nailed it. Unless they are doing it for free, everyone is ‘profiting’ from servicing children’s markets. All we are doing here is arguing whether members of the education union are pocketing the cash, or owners in a school.

    Personally I think non-profit private schools is the best idea, but if take a for-profit private school as a second choice. Ultimately it’s about what you consume in terms of education services and how that stacks up in the market. I would love to see a schooling system based on vouchers and community controlled schools, with principles in a CEO role. The union would be free to participate or even open their own schools.

    Ultimately fear of markets is always fear that one may have to up their game and work harder.

  17. .

    The worst thing about the education market is the obsession with schooling and the associated regimentation and inevitable cost blow outs.

  18. Jazza

    Do markets commodify children?
    YES—unfortunately!
    Guess the advertising gurus know from experience how great kids are at manipulating the adults in their lives!

  19. In New Zealand, you need a resource consent from the local council to make almost any but a very minor change to your house or to change land use. people can object and you might end up in the environment court.

    I had to get a resource consent to get cable TV to my last house. the new underground cable would have been say 20 meters long.

    a women in the next city to me objects to every single resource consent in her district.

  20. The Pugilist

    Julie, another issue here with childcare is the interaction of rent-seekers and governments. Eddy Groves was not an entrepreneur taking risks in a free market. His entrepreneurial talent was spotting an opportunity to make handsome profits on the back of government restricted supply. Therese Rein is an ‘entrepreneur’ in much the same vein. In that environment, good relations with governments is more important than connecting with your end customers.

  21. Therese Rein is an ‘entrepreneur’ in much the same vein

    Ahhhh, but according to Wikipedia she is an entrepreneuse

    which sounds like the entry was written by a ouanquere

  22. Demosthenes

    Is surrogacy a commodification of children?

  23. The Pugilist

    Do markets commodify children?
    YES—unfortunately!
    Guess the advertising gurus know from experience how great kids are at manipulating the adults in their lives!

    Jazza, the leftist idiots who infest the childcare and education sector are not so concerned about this. They are more worried about private competition. How much say do your children have in where they are cared for, or go to school. I’d say a damn sight less than in your decisions to buy confectionery.

  24. The Pugilist

    Entrepreneur, entrepreneuse…bah…I’d rather call them rent-seekers.

  25. MT Isa Miner

    nilk

    #1249486, posted on April 2, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    But that needs effort when you are shopping and discipline to resist the ” everyone else has one”.

    I honestly don’t have a problem with saying no. I don’t get why anyone should have a problem with it.

    no, me neither, Nilk.

    But if you want to be your kids or your grandkids “friend” all the time that’s a problem then isn’t it.

  26. nilk, Iron Bogan

    LOL, Mt. Isa Miner. My offspring learned early that I’ll be happy to be friends with her when she’s around 25. Until then, we can hang out and have fun, but I’m always Mum.

  27. Michaelc58

    The government, by giving a subsidy for childcare has changed its perception:
    From a consumer service to an entitlement.
    Then it’s a small step to it being a necessity, why else would it be an entitlement.
    A necessity needs safeguards for the poor, the struggling middle class, racial minorities, trans-sexual…you name it.
    Now it has become an issue of welfare..
    No one should profit from helping the unfortunate.
    So it will best be handled by government…who will probably contract it out.
    Ergo, the government just grew bigger and more powerful.

  28. Nato

    This is the best thing I’ve read all week. Who would have thought that so many big words could be made to flow so well? And still be so clear!

    Love your style.

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