Commodifying Caring

Roger Scruton has complained that, in our society, “too many goods have a price.” He makes a Walzerian argument that certain experiences cannot be bought and sold without doing violence to their ultimate social meaning:

A century and a half ago John Muir in America and John Ruskin in England initiated the movement to save our world from spoliation. They rightly understood that nothing would  be saved if we simply defend it on economic grounds. A valley might be useful as farmland, but it might be even more useful as a reservoir or an opencast mine. Only if we recognize the intrinsic value of nature will it be proof against our predations; hence we should esteem landscapes and forests for their beauty, for their sacred quality, for the part they play in defining us and ennobling our settlements, rather than for their use. Only this will keep the market at bay and prevent us from consuming our world. . . .

Love is priceless, not because its price is higher than we can pay, but because it cannot be purchased but only earned. Of course, you can purchase the simulacrum of love, and there are people who are accomplished providers. But love that is purchased is only a pretense. Goods like love, beauty, consolation, and the sacred are spiritual goods: they have a value, but no price.

Economists don’t like spiritual goods. Such goods are connected to us not as things to be used, consumed, and exchanged but as parts of what we are. To lose them is to lose ourselves.

Perhaps the ultimate revenge of the economic mindset on commitments like Scruton’s is the rise of the caring industry, which Ronald W. Dworkin incisively examines in a recent article:

Half of all Americans today are lonely. Not only lonely but also unhappy. An estimated 20 percent of the population exhibits symptoms of anxiety and depression, and in some states the prevalence of symptoms is closer to 30 percent. An estimated 95 percent of Americans have low self-esteem. Consistent with these trends, at least 15 percent of Americans are now on a psychoactive drug at any given moment.

People want to be able to go about their daily lives with the knowledge that someone is there for them. This basic truth led to the rise of the caring industry. Millions of unhappy people use professional counselors to compensate for having no one to talk to about their everyday problems. . . .

Today in the U.S. there are 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches. Most of these professionals spend their days helping people cope with everyday life problems, not true mental illness. More than half the patients in therapy don’t even qualify for a psychiatric diagnosis. In addition, there are 400,000 nonclinical social workers and 220,000 substance abuse counselors working outside the official mental health system yet offering clients informal psychological advice nonetheless.

Perhaps the legal valorization of friendship is ever more necessary when economic measures (like GDP) positively value the replacement of (free) friends with paid members of the caring industry. I also think that, given how prized labor mobility is in the US, we may as well get used to the rise of the “caring industry,” and commit ourselves to caring more about making professional caregivers’ lives more secure.

Photo Credit: Paro robotic seal, designed in part to provide company to the lonely elderly in a country which is not particularly open to immigrant labor.

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