I've been pondering this question since a participant asked about public versus private goods, at my Food Thinkers (City University of London) talk on Sept 19. In arguing for rationing of meat consumption, I had said that our societies already selectively allocate goods. We restrict water use in the summer. We require that library patrons limit the number of books they borrow. We 'triage' patients in emergency wards so that limited medical resources can go to those who need them most. And of course we put price tags on virtually all consumer goods, which is another form of selective allocation or rationing.
In response, one thoughtful participant wrote in the Q&A following my talk:
All the examples shared about rationing are for public services and utilities (access to public natural resources, access to council-run libraries, access to water). There are no parallels in rationing in business. Even cigarettes and alcohol can be purchased without limits. Is the sad fact that we're simply unwilling to tackle anything that might affect the incomes of private companies?
This really got me thinking. I'll make two points:
(1) In crises, businesses can and do ration. During Covid, numerous grocers did indeed put limits on specific items that were on high demand. At one point, my local shop limited eggs to a dozen per customer. I didn't hear of any complaints. Here's one media article on CNN, titled "Panic buying is forcing supermarkets to ration food and other supplies", showing that numerous stores did the same.
(2) To the larger issue of public versus private goods, we can rethink our notion of 'private' in cases where specific goods have significant ecological effects. Production of meat and dairy foods require enormous planetary resources, and should probably not be blithely considered private even when the steak is on the dinner plate.
There is an analogue for this. In my corner of the world, even in "free-enterprise"-dominant North America, trees on private homesites are no longer considered entirely the property of the homeowner. Almost ten years ago, Vancouver's Urban Forest Strategy outlined the need for homeowners to request permission if they want to cut down trees above a certain size that are on their lots. As the City of Vancouver declared: "Vancouver’s urban forest includes all trees on public and private property in the City."
Perhaps we could extend that idea to goods that are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis.