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You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Commodities


Generally speaking, a commodity is whatever we collectively say it is. A more important question, then, is "what is NOT a commodity?" A market purist may argue that all things are properly understood as commodities, by defining a commodity as anything for which there are willing suppliers and consumers. If this position is correct, then the question is oxymoronic and hence meaningless. However, there may be very important reasons to treat certain things with additional care, especially if there are valid extenuating reasons for removing something from the market.

The human body, for example, has long been debated as a possible commodity. Some will argue that if there is a market (in johns) for the human body, and if there are willing suppliers (in sex trade workers), then the body should indeed be regarded as a commodity. Others will argue that the body should not be a commodity, citing the philosophical position, best outlined by Kant, that humans are always ends in themselves and should never be treated as a means to an end.

In Canada in 1970, a political decision was made to declare that health care is not a commodity. That is, Canadians decided, through their elected representatives, that health care should be treated differently because of certain extenuating reasons. These are:

To these basic principles can be added some supplementary arguments:

Aside from the technical arguments, which are discussed in more detail in the section on health care, the crux of the decision to stop treating health care as a commodity is the decision that health care should be a basic right for all Canadians. A market liberal would say that the only legitimate rights are the right to life, freedom of movement, freedom of action, and freedom of association. A democrat, on the other hand, would say that a right is anything that the people believe in and are willing to pay for. (This is a taste of the conflict between liberty and democracy.)

While the dictates of liberalism have unquestionably served us well the last couple of centuries by successfully challenging the arbitrary authority of the Church and of Kings, liberty alone has repeatedly shown itself as insufficient to make a society work for its citizens. Universal public health care was introduced because the market was doing a poor job of making medical care available to people. It was expensive, inconsistent, and inaccessible to many people, who had no choice but to seek treatment on an unregulated, catch-as-catch-can basis. Public health care simply works better than private health care. It covers more people, costs less, is much more efficient at allocating money to care, and patient satisfaction in countries with public health care is consistently higher than in countries with private health care.

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