BTC: What do you see?

This week’s asbestos thing is probably difficult to get excited about. A little lacking in relevance to your day-to-day life, what with your kids, your spouse, your job, those leaves that need to be raked, the flavoured tobacco your kids are smoking, Stephane Dion’s permanent tax on everything, Angelina Jolie’s marital status, the decline in the housing market, your retirement savings, international terrorism, the socialist who is about to be elected president of the United States, Madonna’s marital status, and the financial crisis that will ultimately leave your children with nothing to eat but flavoured tobacco already demanding so much of your attention.

So here’s another way to look at it. How you feel about asbestos defines how you feel about the fundamental human responsibilities of your government. It’s a political inkblot test.

The asbestos industry employs about 1,000 people in Canada. Much of what’s produced is then exported to countries like India, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia where its use may be sickening untold numbers of people who are not Canadian. A number of countries would like to require that any country receiving asbestos be explicitly warned of its potential harms. Canada opposes such an international agreement.

Let’s assume you believe, quite reasonably, that the government’s first responsibility is to the citizens it is elected to represent. But let’s assume you also feel, quite reasonably, that the government should act as a generally positive force in the world, championing abroad the same values it hopes to represent. Generally speaking, those two objectives aren’t going to be in conflict. But in this case they are.

So, first, how do you balance—or even choose between—them?

Do a thousand jobs for Canadians justify potential harm to citizens of other countries? If not, is there a number of jobs that would justify that harm? What about 10,000 jobs? Or 100,000? Does it matter how many people might suffer elsewhere? Or how badly they might suffer? What if they might die?

Do the jobs at stake matter more if they are specific to certain small communities that were dependent on those jobs? Does the government have a responsibility to sustain those towns, even if the products they depend on are hazardous to human health?

What about the socio-economic status of those receiving the potentially harmful product? Should the government take more responsibility if the countries accepting the stuff are relatively poorer and acting more generally out of desperation? Are we free to sell whatever we like if countries elsewhere are willing to buy it? Or, even if the opposite government won’t, should we take into account the human interests of those in other countries? What if the situation were reversed?

How do we choose between us and them? And how would we want other countries to balance those responsibilities?

That, simply enough, is the issue.