I just read Michael Sandel's latest book, What Money Can't Buy
. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although I did not always agree with its arguments. In posting about it here, I am hoping for a chance to debrief and discuss its ideas with you, whether or not you've read the book yourself.
What struck me most about the book was how, in my opinion, it transcended traditional party divisions. Or, more precisely, I think Sandel makes arguments both liberals and social conservatives can agree on, even if only under different circumstances. That said, I imagine that tried-and-true, Laissez-faire-loving, fiscal
conservatives will be more reluctant to buy his arguments, ever.
Anyway, here's my best attempt at a brief synopsis, using his own passages, although not without editing and rearranging. If you've read it, feel free to contribute here.
Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?
For two reasons: one is about inequality; the other is about corruption. Consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters. [...]
The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That's because markets don't only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. [...]
Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods they exchange. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.
Of course, people disagree about what values are worth caring about, and why. So to decide what money should--and should not--be able to buy, we have to decide what values should govern the various domains of social and civic life. How to think this through is the subject of this book.
Here is a preview of the answer I hope to offer: when we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way. The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as commodities, to be bought and sold at auction. Such treatment fails to value human beings in the appropriate way--as persons worthy of dignity and respect, rather than as instruments of gain and objects of use. [...]
Some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities. So to decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question--health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on. These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods and the proper way of valuing them. [...]
In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don't pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don't ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is, "How much?" Markets don't wag fingers. They don't discriminate between admirable preferences and base ones. Each party to a deal decides for himself or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged. [...]
A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they don't belong. It would also invigorate our politics, by welcoming competing notions of the good life into the public square. For how else could such arguments proceed? If you agree that buying and selling certain goods corrupts or degrades them, then you must believe that some ways of valuing these goods are more appropriate than others. It hardly makes sense to speak of corrupting an activity--parenthood, say, or citizenship--unless you think that some ways of being a parent, or a citizen, are better than others.
Moral judgments such as these lie behind the few limitations on markets we still observe. We don't allow parents to sell their children or citizens to sell their votes. And one of the reasons we don't is, frankly, judgmental: we believe that selling these things values them in the wrong way and cultivates bad attitudes.
Thinking through the moral limits of markets makes these questions unavoidable. It requires that we reason together, in public, about how to value the social goods we prize. [...]
Such deliberations touch, inevitably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that market forces will decide them for us. [...]
And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?
A good example, for our purposes, that Sandel highlights is the "Line Standing" business on Capitol Hill:
In Washington, D.C., the line-standing business is fast becoming a fixture of government. When congressional committees hold hearings on proposed legislation, they reserve some seats for the press and make others available to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis. Depending on the subject and size of the room, the lines for the hearings can form a day or more in advance, sometimes in the rain or in the chill of winter. Corporate lobbyists are keen to attend these hearings, in order to chat up lawmakers during breaks and keep track of legislation affecting their industries. But the lobbyists are loath to spend hours in line to assure themselves a seat. Their solution: pay thousands of dollars to professional line-standing companies that hire people to queue up for them.
Sandel goes on to argue that this business, despite being legal, is moral suspect, both (1) because it unfairly favors stakeholders with money, which may or may not be the best "currency" by which to evaluate all stakeholders' interests in lobbying Congressional policy, and (2) because it further reinforces the corrupting impression that Congress is not a civic body representative of all, but merely a tool at the disposal of certain special interests.
His same two objections--fairness and corruption--frame the discussion for almost all of the issues he considers.
So, what do you think? Are there things that money can't--or rather, shouldn't--buy? How do we know where to draw the line? On prostitution? On immigration rights to the U.S.? On corporate advertising and sponsorship in school classrooms and police cars and school buses? On privileged access to "concierge physicians"? On re-sold life insurance policies? On blood donations? On positive health/education outcomes?
Edit: I'm less interested in whether these things are, or should be, legally
acceptable, than I'm interested in whether these things are, or should be, morally
acceptable. Though either debate is interesting to have, I suppose.