Monday, June 11, 2012

Money buys everything?

In our consumerist world, even global financial payment company MasterCard, in its 'Priceless' advertising pitch, says 'yes': 'There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard.'
Harvard University's political philosopher Michael Sandel suggests that most people would say 'yes' too.
Background story
For those uninterested in public square discourses, Prof Sandel points out that the 'more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another'. For any society concerned with rising inequality, that 'people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives' is worrying.
Best known for his undergraduate course Justice (available online at, he cites friendship as an example in his latest book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2012).
We hire dispatch workers, therapists and nannies who can do us the favours that friends typically do, but we have bought services - not friends. If we had sought to buy friends, the market exchange 'dissolved' the friendship, or turned it into something else.
But Professor Sandel wants us to reflect beyond whether there are things that money can't buy. The central question in his book is whether there are things that money can but should not be able to buy.
Should children be put up for sale? Are organ trades defensible?
In these instances, the buyers would obtain what they want - a child or a kidney. These cases seem different from friendship. Or, are they?
To Prof Sandel, the distinction is not as clear-cut as it appears. In these latter cases, 'the good survives the selling but is arguably degraded, or corrupted, or diminished as a result'.
He considers two main objections to markets in goods such as children and human organs.
The first objection is fairness. Some markets prey on the poor: A very poor person may be coerced to sell his organ to feed his family. Also, some buyers, unable to pay the price, are left out. This concern, Prof Sandel notes, is based upon the moral ideal of consent under fair background conditions.
Pro-market advocates say markets respect freedom of choice, and we thus accept the market's allocation of goods. But if choices are not voluntary, and if the disadvantaged are coerced or cannot bargain on fair terms, market allocation of goods is less justifiable.
The second objection is based on corruption. It is argued here that such trades commodify, degrade or objectify the human. The poor person is treated as 'a collection of spare parts'. The 'norm of unconditional parental love' is corrupted by 'putting a price tag on children'.
Price differences might foster the dependence of a child's value on such factors as 'race, sex, intellectual promise, physical abilities or disabilities, and other traits'.
This second objection is more absolute because trade remains objectionable even if fair bargaining conditions exist. Norms that should govern such 'goods' are not market values.
Prof Sandel essentially objects to allowing market values to crowd out 'non-market' norms such as civic duty or altruism.
For example, using financial incentives to motivate people to accept a nuclear waste site in their community 'bypasses persuasion and the kind of consent that arises from deliberating about the risks the facility poses and the larger community's need for it'.
In Switzerland, a narrow majority in a community accepted a nuclear waste site based on their sense of civic duty, but support went down when monetary compensation was offered.
Citizens were willing to be public-spirited, but did not wish to be 'bribed'. Prof Sandel notes that the 'intrusion of market norms crowded out their sense of civic duty'.
He challenges two assumptions of market faith.
The first is that commercialisation does not crowd out non-market norms. Donors may still donate, leaving those who wish to trade to freely buy and sell.
Prof Sandel counters with the example of a market in blood. The meaning of donation would be changed as donors should now consider whether they are depriving a needy person of selling his blood by their donation.
The second is that moral sentiments such as altruism and civic duty are 'scarce resources that are depleted with use' and relying on markets is better as they 'spare us from using up the limited supply of virtue'.
Prof Sandel rejects this as ignoring 'the possibility that our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice'.
While we may not agree on moral values that govern our interactions, he points out that avoiding such questions in the public square for fear of their intractability will not leave them undecided. It 'simply means that markets will decide them for us'. We need to 'deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize'.
His brilliant work is replete with examples of ubiquitous transactions that we take for granted - ticket-scalping, paying someone to stand in line, allowing someone to jump a queue with 'fast-track' tickets to amusement rides, faster access to health care for higher prices, incentivising teachers to produce good results, rewarding children for good grades, and skyboxes in sports stadiums. Is something wrong with such 'transactions'?
Prof Sandel's genius as a political philosopher lies in bringing philosophical questions alive through day-to-day examples that we encounter in any consumerist society but do not think twice about.
For those uninterested in public square discourses, he points out that the 'more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another'.
For any society concerned with rising inequality, that 'people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives' is worrying.
Which local practices should we rethink? For anyone who cares, Prof Sandel's thought-provoking book is a worthy read to help us figure this out.
The writer teaches philosophy of law at the Singapore Management University.