On Exporting Asbestos and Land Mines

This week Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper (an economist by training) defended his government’s position that it is okay to export asbestos to developing nations. In doing so he echoed the justification he offered during the recent election campaign, when he stated that in the case of exporting asbestos he would “not put Canadian industry in a position where it is discriminated against in a market where sale is permitted.” At its core, this justification rests on the assertion that if there is a (legal) market for a product in some corner of the world, then Canadian manufacturers and exporters ought to supply it.

There are obvious political motivations behind Mr. Harper’s decision–he wants support in the province of Quebec where the asbestos is mined–but this kind of justification is more common than it should be. For example, in an opinion piece on the European Union’s decision to ban the import of seal products from Canada, the CBC’s Michael Hlinka (also an economist by training) argued that the ban was “outrageous” in part because there was an obvious market for seal products within the EU.

If anything about these two cases is outrageous, it’s the use of an argument that considers the existence of a market for a particular product as sufficient justification for supplying that market. If you scour the earth you’re likely to find markets, both government sanctioned and otherwise, for almost anything: human slaves, cocaine, asbestos, nuclear weapons, bad mortgage debt, and land mines. The fact that we choose to not supply those markets is an indication that the mere existence of a market is insufficient justification.

In fact, the mere existence of a market, government sanctioned or otherwise, is never sufficient justification for supplying that market. This is because there is an additional consideration that must always accompany the decision whether or not to supply a market, and that is the question of whether or not the market ought to be supplied. In many cases answering that question will shine light on the question whether or not the market ought to exist in the first place.

Take the asbestos case as an example of the kinds of further considerations that must be raised in order to determine if a market ought to be supplied. We know that there is a market for asbestos. We know also that that market exists in parts of the world (India and China) where workers do NOT have the kinds of workplace safety standards enjoyed here in Canada or the US. We know that asbestos, when handled improperly poses serious long-term health risks. Based on these facts alone, we can (very) safely assume that our exported asbestos will cause many people serious health problems into the future.

The same kinds of considerations went into our (and 156 other countries’) choice to ban the production, use, and export of land mines, as expressed in the Ottawa Treaty. There is a market for land mines. Land mines are not handled properly in those markets, i.e they are not removed after use. We know that many people suffer as a result of the use of land mines in those markets.

In the case of land mines, we chose to ban the production and export of related products, despite there being several government sanctioned markets for them.

The Canadian government’s response is that asbestos is safe if handled correctly. Of course, that’s as true for asbestos as it is for land mines.

Knowing that asbestos and land mines currently cause harms to people in the primary markets where they are used isn’t just a problem for the governments responsible for regulating those markets. It is also a problem for governments that choose to export asbestos and land mines to those markets. That’s the funny thing about knowledge–once you’re exposed to it, you’re on the hook for whatever moral dilemmas it poses.

Pretending that “market talk” and “ethics talk” can be compartmentalized didn’t work with the environment, or land mines, and it doesn’t work with asbestos. Market talk might distract some people from their obligations for a time, but it can never eliminate those obligations, or the knowledge that ignoring obligations can sometimes cost lives.

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