Can't buy me love or morality

First aired on The Current (10/09/12)

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Economists refer to the free market as the "invisible hand," but according to Michael Sandel it's become more like a scratching claw. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University, is the author of What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, in which he contends that market ideology has come to shape and influence parts of our lives and parts of society where it has no proper place. He spoke with Anna-Maria Tremonti on The Current earlier this week.

Sandel argues that rather than living with a market economy, we are now living in a market society — much to our detriment. "The difference is this: a market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity, but a market society is a place where everything is up for sale," he explained. "It's a place where market values and market relationships reach into spheres of life — health, the environment, citizenship — that are traditionally governed by non-market values."

One of the main arguments of the book is that over the last few decades we have drifted, almost without realizing it, from having a market economy to being a market society. And this has been with very little public debate. "It's troubling because market values can crowd out non-market values worth caring about," said Sandel.

In his book Sandel offers examples, such as the fact that in parts of California, convicts who can afford it can buy a "prison cell upgrade." Another extreme example is in the area of procreation. "There is a charitable organization that tries to solve the problem of babies being born to drug-addicted mothers by paying any drug-addicted woman $300 to undergo sterilization," he pointed out.

Another example cited is the companies you can pay to wait in line for you. "In Washington, D.C., they allocate places in congressional hearings on a first-come, first-serve basis," explained Sandel. "A lot of lobbyists want to attend these hearings, but they don't want to stand in the long lines to get in. So they hire line-standing companies, who in turn hire the homeless or other people to wait in the queue for hours, sometimes overnight in the amounts to auctioning access to the congressional hearing."

Is there something inherently wrong in paying someone to wait in line for you? "It all depends on what that line is for," according to Sandel. "And this really goes to the heart of the philosophical argument of the book. We can't decide where markets are appropriate mechanisms for allocating goods, and where queuing, or lotteries, or other mechanisms are better, without first deciding about how that good should be valued."

So when it comes to a lobbyist paying someone to stand in line so they can be first at a congressional hearing, the nature of the "good" in question is access to representative government — and to make such access available for sale to the highest bidder is extremely problematic. To turn certain things into sellable commodities could lead to corruption and inequality, which is why it's important to have conversations and debates over what should and shouldn't be up for grabs. Just because you can put a price on something doesn't mean that you should.

Of course there are a few things that money will never be able to buy, like true love and friendship. "A bought friend somehow is not the same as a real one. The money that would purchase the friendship would somehow dissolve the good we're seeking," Sandel said. "So there are some goods where money simply doesn't work — although that doesn't keep some people from trying."