What Money Can’t Buy

May 22, 2012

‘America’ from West Side Story was one of my favorite songs when I was growing up. My brother and I would play the LP over and over again, first singing with the girls, “I like to live in America. OK by me in America. Everything free in America,” and then swinging back with their boyfriends, “For a small fee in America.”

As Michael Sandel demonstrates repeatedly in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, a lot has changed since then. Seemingly everything has a price and everything (provided you can afford to pay) is up for sale.

A few examples: well-off prisoners in Santa Ana, Ca can buy a prison cell upgrade, affluent drivers can buy their way into Minneapolis’ car pool lane without having to share their car with a passenger, and childless couples of means can hire a surrogate mother in India to bear their child for just $6,250. Nor are the possibilities limited to US citizens. A foreigner can jump the long waiting lines for a US residency permit (“green card”) by agreeing to invest $500,000 and create at least 10 jobs in an area of high unemployment.

These days, if you have the money, you can get access to incredible array of items that were once considered off-limits. But this means the reverse is also true. More people and organizations are selling things (advertising space on a forehead, the opportunity to shoot an endangered animal, permission to emit toxic gases, a place in line at a Congressional hearing, etc.) than ever before. Our country seems to be one gigantic marketplace. Ask your child if he or she would like to go to the library and borrow some books and you might just hear this reply, “Mommy, how much will you pay me to read?”

Economists like market transactions partly because that is what they study, but also because transactions provide insight into human behavior. If money were no object, how much would you be willing to pay for an automobile, a front row seat at a Broadway show, or a ride aboard the International Space Station? The fact that a year at Harvard costs more than a year at Local Community College presumably reflects the higher quality of a Harvard education. But price-watching, Sandel points out, leads to a warped view of human behavior. Prices are no substitute for personal integrity or social values. Market-based transactions should not be allowed to substitute for morals.

One of the things that makes this book intriguing, however, is what it sidesteps. Arguably, transactions involving hard-to-get items and privileges have some degree of greed attached to them. “I want it,” the purchaser thinks. “Then you’re going to have to pay,” the seller responds. Therefore, one might expect this book to be a long diatribe against greed, but Sandel is not interested in that topic. “We need to do more than inveigh against greed,” he writes. “We need to rethink the role that markets should play in our society. We need a public debate about what it means to keep markets in their place. … We need to ask whether there are some things money should not buy.”

According to Sandel, economists traditionally and routinely avoid the question of whether certain transactions are appropriate and this avoidance constitutes a kind of moral blind spot. Consider this. Economists are quite skilled at calculating the price of a human life (this is routinely done as part of cost-benefit analyses of environmental regulations). However, given this price estimate, can anyone accept the idea that a convicted murderer might be allowed to use this price to advertise for someone to take his place in the gas chamber, or that a sufficiently needy person might be allowed to accept this offer? No matter what your feelings are regarding capital punishment, (Sandel and) I suspect that you would find a transaction like this one to be utterly repugnant.

Of course, not every market transaction involves profound matters of life and death, but Sandel makes a clear and strong case that the corrosive impact of market transactions are often detectable if one is simply willing to look, and he calls attention to three problems. First, fairness. Are the participants operating freely and able to give free consent, or is there an element of coercion? Are the participants able to access the same information and resources, or is one operating with an advantage that the other lacks? Second, corruption. Does market valuation and exchange degrade the goods and practices that are being traded? One way to tell: would you be willing to admit that you had obtained a service or good or privilege by paying for it? And, third, does the introduction of market values “crowd out” other kinds of values? Do we begin to lose sight of the values that used to govern certain behaviors and institutions once we assign a price to the behavior (or institution) and turn it over to the market? Sandel’s analysis of fairness, corruption, and market crowding, make this a must-read book, and the clarity of his writing make it an enjoyable read as well.

Read another review by A.C. Grayling

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