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Love, Happiness, and Other Things Money Can’t (Or At Least Shouldn’t) Buy

Friday, June 22, 2012

Are there limits to markets?

I recently visited Washington for work while the Supreme Court entertained oral arguments in the ObamaCare cases. When I asked some friends to assess my chances of securing a seat for any of the hearings, they scoffed: “The professional line-standers have gobbled up all the tickets!”

And sure enough, both the Washington Post and the New York Times ran photos of intrepid souls braving the elements to stand in line overnight for a chance to receive coveted Supreme Court passes—for other people.

In fact, in D.C. and elsewhere, a cottage industry has arisen in which under- and unemployed people—including the homeless—wait in ticket lines for others in exchange for as much as $15 per hour. While this practice is well worth it to those individuals, law firms, and lobbyists with better things to do than wait around in line, it raises some interesting moral questions: Is it right to pay others to take one’s place in line in general, especially when most Americans cannot afford such a privilege? Should access to civic hearings of great importance be bartered on the open market? And are we somehow compromising the integrity of such events by commodifying them?

These are the types of questions political philosopher Michael J. Sandel eloquently and unapologetically confronts in What Money Can’t Buy, a stimulating volume on the limits of markets whose proposed solutions are perhaps a bit less interesting and persuasive than the concerns they address.

Is it right to pay others to take one’s place in line in general, especially when most Americans cannot afford such a privilege?

“Without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so,” Sandel laments, “we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society,” or “a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor” (emphasis his). In “concierge”-style medical care, naming rights for stadiums, advertisements on city buses (and even police cars), paid participation in clinical testing, and selling tickets for papal audiences, Sandel finds ample material for examining the relationship between ethics and the contemporary American marketplace.

(Full disclosure: I had the great good fortune to study these issues with Sandel a decade ago in an outstanding, small law school seminar entitled “Markets, Morals, and the Law,” which fired my imagination on the economic and ethical implications of patenting life forms.)

Sandel prosecutes two principal charges in his indictment of what he derides as “market triumphalism”: Inequality and corruption.

First, “the commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more.” The deeper market thinking penetrates into society, he claims, the more pronounced differences between rich and poor become.

Second, “putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them.” Sandel explains that “to corrupt a good or social practice is to degrade it, to treat it according to a lower mode of valuation than is appropriate to it.”

This is undoubtedly true, as the author amply demonstrates, on the extremes. It is plainly immoral to buy and sell human beings, whether as adults (slaves) or children (black-market adoptions). Treating human beings as commodities in this way entirely undermines their integrity and necessarily curtails their natural rights.

It is also unethical—at least in Western countries—to sell one’s vote or to pay a proxy to cover one’s jury duty. Such fundamental civic rights and responsibilities form part of our social contract, and bartering them breaches that agreement.

Some other practices both tear at our social fabric and fail to enhance efficiencies. Sandel explores efforts by employers and health insurers to pay people to lose weight or quit smoking. Not only do such programs undermine the essence of good health—i.e., “developing the right attitude to our physical well-being and treating our bodies with care and respect”—but they also fail in the long run: One study found that 90% of smokers paid to quit resumed their habit six months after the payments ceased.

In another illuminating example, child-care centers in Israel tried to resolve a parent tardiness problem by assessing a fine for parents who turned up late to retrieve their kids. But the penalty only caused late pickups to increase, as parents undoubtedly felt less bad about arriving late, knowing they were offsetting their unpunctuality with a monetary indulgence.

We may well want to compromise a little bit of the integrity of our system of government—if indeed we are doing so—to permit the elderly or the infirm or the just-plain-busy greater access to it.

I recall one particular lecture in an undergrad course co-taught by Sandel, the center-right journalist and pundit George F. Will, and the conservative philosopher Harvey C. Mansfield, in which the three star thinkers debated the prevalence at athletic venues of luxury skyboxes, including at Boston’s then-newly-constructed Fleet Center (now TD Garden). While Will, an avid sports fan and ardent traditionalist, acknowledged that such amenities bring in big bucks for the teams that exploit them, Sandel pined for the “sweaty egalitarianism” of the old Boston Garden, where rich and poor alike rubbed elbows and shared equally obstructed views of the parquet floor.

Sandel’s new book reprises that theme in a section on skyboxes, musing that “sports stadiums are the cathedrals of our civil religion, public spaces that gather people from different walks of life in rituals of loss and hope, profanity and prayer.” He observes that before the University of Michigan renovated its legendary “Big House” to add deluxe seating, opponents of the decision complained that for over a century, “the Maize-and-Blue faithful have stood together, shivered together, cheered together and won together, side by side.” Not anymore, at least for the doyennes of the 81 skyboxes now cloistering some fans in Ann Arbor.

But other issues, such as line-standing, are much closer calls. Sandel recognizes that the practice promotes efficiency, but contends that it nevertheless “degrades Congress by treating it as a source of private gain rather than an instrument of the public good.”

I’m not so sure everyone would agree. Presumably, Sandel would concede that those who most want to attend a congressional hearing or Supreme Court argument should be able to do so. Yet those who have the time and energy to stand in line are not necessarily those who most want to attend, so why not permit the avid C-SPAN junkies to pay a small amount to hire a line-standing proxy? We may well want to compromise a little bit of the integrity of our system of government—if indeed we are doing so—to permit the elderly or the infirm or the just-plain-busy greater access to it.

Not that Sandel would insist on barring line-standing outright; he just wants to spark a conversation about such practices. This is the goal of communitarianism, Sandel’s particular slice of the political philosophy spectrum, which examines the interplay between individual rights and communal institution-building. As he puts it:

What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For that is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

Sandel’s approach breaks down in places, as all communitarian theories eventually do, sometimes because he introduces his own moral judgment and sometimes because he refuses to.

China imposes a fine of up to $31,000 on any family violating its ironclad rule, but the affluent have come to regard that amount as a fee for having additional children, not a penalty against it.

For instance, he contends that $150,000 licenses to hunt African black rhinos might be morally acceptable while $6,500 fees to shoot walruses on Inuit land might not. In both cases, the fees aim to subsidize indigenous peoples and encourage conservation of beloved wildlife—by funding their killing. Yet while Sandel expresses grudging admiration for big-game hunters—who “maintain that killing a great and powerful creature is a form of respect”—he brooks no dissent on the evils of shooting walruses, or “the desire to kill a helpless mammal at close range, without any challenge or chase.” I happen to agree with Sandel’s distinction here, but I’m not convinced that all sportsmen would.

His analysis also runs into trouble examining the avenues some wealthy Chinese have taken to avoid the country’s loathsome—I use that word deliberately—one-child policy. China imposes a fine of up to $31,000 on any family violating its ironclad rule, but the affluent have come to regard that amount as a fee for having additional children, not a penalty against it. While Sandel skillfully dissects the philosophical and economic differences between fines and fees, he never bothers to question the (un)ethical underpinnings of the one-child policy in the first place.

But such problematic answers aside, the strength of this engaging, almost riveting reflection lies in the questions it raises. Sandel recognizes that good people can honestly “disagree about the norms appropriate to many of the domains that markets have invaded.” He doesn’t fancy himself omniscient, able to propose solutions acceptable to all.

Instead, he urges his readers to participate in a process of “deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.” A worthy conversation indeed, and Sandel has done well to start it.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Michael M. Rosen also writes “Tyrannosaurus Ecs,” “Lights, Camera, Crazy!” and “Pity the Progressive.” Arthur C. Brooks says, “Why Free Enterprise is About Morals, Not Materialism” and “The Value of Free Enterprise has Nothing to do with Money or Wealth.” James Pethokoukis contributes “Marketplace Morality is Not About Being Nice.” 

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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