When the rich and powerful butt heads, are they obligated to look out for the little guy?
The NHL lockout may be over, but its impact is far from forgotten. Or even clear. And it goes far beyond the loss of income to the NHL, its member teams and its players.
The end of the dispute may mean little to the economy as a whole, but to one portion of the economy—the portion that depends for its livelihood on the actual playing of hockey games—it means everything. The economic loss to Canada as a whole as a result of the loss of half a season of hockey may amount to less than 0.05% of our GDP, but the impact was felt disproportionately by the thousands of businesses and individuals that depend for their livelihood on the NHL and its players. For every Sidney Crosby or Daniel Alfredsson making millions on the ice, there is an entire ecosystem of managers, announcers, hotdog vendors and Zamboni drivers who only have jobs because hockey is being played.
The lockout resulted, in other words, in a lot of so-called “collateral damage.” Some teams had to lay off staff (in some cases, that meant hundreds of employees per team) and many businesses—from sports bars to the guy selling hotdogs outside the arena—saw business dip or even bottom out entirely.
Of course, this is true in almost any labour dispute. When auto assembly-line workers go on strike, workers at companies that manufacture parts for those assembly lines may see hard times as a result. But as many have pointed out, the dispute between the NHLPA and the NHL was a dispute between millionaires and billionaires, which gives the whole thing a distinctly different feel.
Whether the 113-day dispute was worthwhile to either the players or the league—whether either side gained more than it lost—is for them to decide. The relevant ethics question, in my opinion, is what part the financial fate of these innocent bystanders should have played in the decision-making of the two parties to this dispute, namely the NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association. Should the league and players have felt any obligation to end the dispute early, in order to limit financial collateral damage?
It is tempting to cast this question as a matter of what economists call externalities. Externalities are the effects that an economic transaction has on non-consenting bystanders. Pollution and noise are standard examples. And both economic theory and ethical theory agree that externalities are a bad thing. It is typically both inefficient and unfair if significant costs are foisted on innocent bystanders.
But economic theory, at least, doesn’t typically count the income effects of competitive behaviour as “real” externalities. If I outbid you in an auction, your interests have been harmed but not in a way that results in either economic inefficiency or real injustice. If I invent a better mousetrap and put makers of lesser products out of business, the result is ‘frictional’ unemployment but also long-term social gain. And during a labour dispute, money not being spent on hockey-arena hotdogs or Zamboni-driver wages are surely being spent on something else: one man’s loss is another’s gain.
But while not technically unfair, the outcome for bystanders is certainly unfortunate, a bad thing by almost any measure, even if not the result of wrongful behaviour. And when the dispute at hand is between millionaires and billionaires, it’s worth asking at least whether the rich don’t have some duty, some social obligation, to take better care of those less fortunate.
Once upon a time, the rich and powerful cleaved to the notion of “noblesse oblige,” the idea that with wealth and power come responsibility. Of course, even if the team owners and players took such social obligations seriously, that doesn’t necessarily mean the dispute would have ended earlier. An obligation to look out for the little guy doesn’t mean an obligation to throw in the towel. But the notion of social responsibility, not to say humility, might well have done something to reduce the length, and impact, of what many considered to be a pointless conflict in the first place.