Value and Price

The social worth of a person in no way reflects their income or wealth. To confuse the two notions is to play into the values of the rich. 

My brother, Keith, died in the hospital wing of a Christchurch retirement home recently. He had been diagnosed with metastatic bowel cancer two years before, and had 22 months of a reasonable quality life, thanks to the efforts of doctors, nurses and his partner-in-life, Rose and those who supported her, and to his own fortitude.

Inevitably the last two months were a bit rugged and I found myself, yet again, visiting a retirement home which was the last living stop for a friend. What struck me, yet again, was that except registered nurses, those who tended Keith were immigrants. They were willing and caring, responding cheerfully to the challenges of those they were looking after. There is no way a robot could replace these valued attributes even though good equipment enables them to focus on the caring.

This economist could not help thinking that they were exhibiting valuable traits that were not mentioned in their employment contract. Nor would it say that they should attend the funeral service of their now deceased client – but they do. Yes, I have deliberately used the business term of ‘client’, to remind you that they were in a business relationship; yet it is not the way they, or you, think of it – rightly.

I am not going to argue they should be paid more because of the value of the services (again the business term) the carers provide. I am going to be much more radical. I want to argue that how much they get paid tells us absolutely nothing about their value to society.

We confuse social value and commercial value. You know the joke about economists knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. But we do know the difference, as my first-year economics course taught when it asked why the price of diamonds is higher than the price of water when it is so obvious that water is much more valuable to society. The standard answer is that price equals marginal value; because water is plentiful we use it for a lot of things of low marginal value which reflects the price; but there are other uses which are extremely valuable – fundamental to life.

Nowadays I am not even sure that the term ‘value’ being used here is meaningful except in economists’ technical sense of reflecting market demand. Social value – what the carers were adding outside their employment contracts – may not be reflected in market demand but it is terribly important to all of us. (If you are unsure of this, think of what we pay for parental childcare.)

Our public rhetoric confuses the distinction. We treat Sir Walter Elliot as a much valued member of society because of his status and the income that goes with it. But is he contributing any more to society than the nurses who were contributing to Keith’s welfare? (For that matter, are his claims to wisdom and insight any more significant than those of people on lower pay and status even though our preference for pompous platitudes says they are?)

I am not saying we should not pay these nurse-carers more. I believe everyone has the right to a decent standard of living, albeit together with obligations to society that go with it. I am saying that the argument that ‘nurses are worth more’ does not lead to the conclusion that they should be paid more. Nor should we conclude that the income of one-percenters reflects their worth – it does not. To use the worth-argument for carers is to implicitly confirm it is also true for the rich. It is buying into their account of society – of commerce – and their importance in it.

That social value is not the same as market income is true for others including Keith. I have no idea what he was paid, but he was part of the salt of the earth, without which the world would have no flavour. His value to society far exceeded whatever his income was.

Ultimately society is far larger than commerce; social worth is far larger than economic worth. We should not equate them. To do so lessens the significance of society; it diminishes us all.