Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Review: 'What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ by Michael Sandel

Professor Michael Sandel is quite the philosophical superstar; his course on Justice at Harvard University – now available online and for free – has been viewed by millions. Compared with your average, sleep-inducing university lecture, Sandel’s course makes for compelling viewing. In 2009 he delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures on ‘A New Citizenship’ to great acclaim. He is, without question, a brilliant communicator and a stirring intellectual.

In his latest book, ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’, Sandel takes a prod to our fetish for markets and the rising tide of commodification. Some things should just never be sold, he argues, because doing so degrades and corrupts goods that are best understood in non-market terms.

It’s necessary to get something out of the way to begin with, because I can hear the indignant cries of the rampant right-wingers already: “Communist! Communist!” This is not a tract against capitalism. Sandel doesn’t question – and really, the debate is just boring now – that markets are powerful and efficient (though, imperfect) tools for the allocation of resources and the organization of productive activity. Free markets are, as Churchill said of democracy, the worst system available – besides everything else. What this book laments, is “the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong,” and the fact that, “without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.”

There are two arrows to Sandel’s bow; the first is an objection about inequality, and the other is about corruption. To take them in turn: in a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means – the more money can buy, the more it matters. Secondly, some things are improperly valued or degraded (corrupted) when commodified. I don’t agree with Sandel’s approach to why some things shouldn’t be sold, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now and consider some examples. Here are some things you can now buy (at least in the United States):

-  A prison cell upgrade: $82 per night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for nicer accommodation – a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for non-paying prisoners.

-  The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $6,250. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, where the practice is legal and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States.

-  The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $150,000. South Africa has begun letting ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species.

Of course, some of these things are a little pricey. But no worries – you can always raise some extra funds by:

-  Renting out space on your forehead to display commercial advertising: $777. Air New Zealand hired   thirty people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand.”

-  Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15-20 per hour. The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.

-  If you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2. To encourage reading, the schools pay kids for each book they read.

Sandel’s book is great value for its panoply of jaw-dropping and often hilarious examples alone. The ones I’ve outlined here are by no means the most unusual (for the truly tragic, wacky and outrageous, you’ll have to get yourself a copy of the book).

Take the phenomenon of hired line-standers. What should we make of this practice? My guess is that most people would think that paid line standing, at least on Capitol Hill, is objectionable. But why? One reason is that Congress is a democratic institution, and when well-heeled lobbyists buy their way into hearings, it undermines the public nature of the forum. If allowing this practice would make congressional hearings the exclusive purview of the rich, I think we’d have a pretty good reason not to allow it.

In his book the ‘The Gift Relationship’, the British sociologist Richard Titmuss showed that paying people decreased both the quantity and quality of blood that a blood bank would receive (unless a very large amount of money was at play). The payment converted what had been a donation into a transaction, and eroded the moral aura that had been associated with the act. A market culture, just as here, changes how we view a whole multitude of goods, and not always for the better.

Sandel walks a fine line in this book between playing the moralist, and the conversation starting provocateur. It’s difficult to know which examples he supports and which he doesn’t. Let’s take another one from above: paying $150,000 to kill an endangered black rhino. No doubt there is an emotional knee-jerk, or ‘yuck’ reaction against this. It seems base, or uncouth, to kill such a beautiful creature if the only reason is that it’s for what might, generously, be described as ‘sport’. But it’s not clear why we shouldn’t allow it if it does in fact lead to less black rhinos dying overall. The empirical evidence Sandel discusses indicates that it has indeed had this effect; the new monetary incentive to preserve rhinos has been, apparently, enormously effective. If what we care about is outcomes, we should (assuming there are no viable alternatives) allow the hunters their bloody indulgence.

I’m not convinced by Sandel that we need to philosophize to figure out the ‘nature’ of goods. We can, and should, be less highfalutin and more consequential in our analysis. A decision not to allow something to be sold is best reached after concluding that doing so will have bad consequences, not because it is somehow inconsistent with it’s ‘nature’. Sandel is right to challenge the market fundamentalists, but I am concerned that he seeks to replace it with a fundamentalism of his own; namely that some things should just never be sold, no matter what.

It is in enunciating the various ways in which market culture has degraded and debased society (most particularly in the United States), and in its vigorous call for a more robust public debate, that the value of this book chiefly lies. Sandel is never less than highly entertaining, and even if you don’t agree with him, this book won’t fail to induce some seriously enjoyable cogitation.

Here is an interesting interview of Sandel on this book. And for those who haven’t heard of his course at Harvard on Justice, it is well worth taking a look.

William Isdale is a law and arts (politics and philosophy) student at the University of Queensland, where he is an Academic Excellence Scholar and TJ Ryan Medallist and Scholar. He is the President of the Australian Legal Philosophy Students' Association and Editor of the Justice and the Law Society's journal 'Pandora's Box'. In early 2012 he was a visiting student at Oxford University's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

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