On opening the current New York Review of Books a week ago, I found Jeremy Waldron’s review* of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets of particular interest. The book appears to be a provocative treatment of the border between economics and morality, as is Waldron’s review.
(Unfortunately, the review is behind the NYR paywall, so you can’t see it in full. Consolation recommmendation: Joyce Carol Oates’ review of Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. I wasn’t inspired to read the biography, but I’m eager to read a Dickens novel or two some time soon.)
Waldron poses the core issue at the outset:
Pecunia non olet, we are told. Money doesn’t stink. All it does is open up the way to making exchanges; it’s a liberating medium for connecting one set of preferences to another. But doesn’t money taint the goods it is exchanged for, when those goods have not normally been distributed in the marketplace?
Among the more obvious examples, Waldron suggests, are baby selling and prostitution. But Sandel describes many more.
Michael Sandel’s new book presents, by my count, more than a hundred examples like the ones I have given, of what appear to be intrusions of money and markets into parts of life where they do not belong. Many of these examples I had never heard of before, though they are culled mainly from newspapers. Some of them are quite disturbing and I think they are presented by Sandel for that reason.
There are, for instance, cities in California that offer prison cell upgrades for as much as $127 per night—clean, one-person cells away from the general prison population (most of whom cannot dream of affording that amount). “Our sales pitch at the time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people,’” Janet Givens, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Police Department, told The New York Times, and other jail officials added that the typical pay-to-stay client is a man in his late thirties who has been convicted of driving while intoxicated.
Another example: an outfit called LineStanding.com offers clients in Washington, D.C., a “premier concierge service where standers wait at a designation of your choosing until they are able to rendezvous with you, the attendee.” Congressional hearings are open to the public, but space is limited on a first-come first-served basis. Many Capitol Hill lobbyists say that they are too busy to wait in line: queuing, it is said, “discriminates in favor of people who have the most free time.” The “standers,” apparently, are mostly retirees or, increasingly, homeless people. They accept $15–$20 an hour to wait in line and then, as the time arrives for the hearing to begin, their suited clients hook up with the them, and many ordinary citizens who have been patiently waiting for a seat are crowded out by the well-funded lobbyists.
Later, Waldron introduces an issue that particularly intrigued me. (Emphasis below is mine)
The other way in which Sandel helps get a debate underway is by identifying a number of distinct lines of thought that often get tangled up in our misgivings about money and markets.
One line of thought focuses on the voluntary nature of transactions. …
A second set of concerns is about unfairness. When scarce or quality goods are allocated, should they always go to the highest bidder? Should poor people be crowded out? …
Sandel makes an excellent point in this regard, when he says that in a society where everything is for sale, life is much harder for the poor:
The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters. If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to buy yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would not matter very much. But as money comes to buy more and more … the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger.
The effects of economic inequality of wealth or income are mitigated by the fact that some goods are provided on a basis that has nothing to do with money. It need not be egalitarian or collective provision, but just a shared sense that an unequal distribution won’t always reflect inequality in income. That’s the point about the line for the congressional hearings. Some get in and some don’t, but it is not mainly determined by what money you can offer, at least until linestanding.com enters the picture.
This rarely gets discussed by our political candidates. Everyone on both sides of the aisle is so eager to praise the fruits of capitalism that issues of fairness and proper means of redress get shoved under the rug. Shouldn’t this be the central issue underlying the health care debate? Or regulation of Wall Street? Yet Obama, for one, so rarely comes at the issue directly. The crazed right wing is busy calling him a socialist, yet he is so right of what once was the center that he doesn’t speak out on issues that were historically in the Democratic mainstream.
Or, as Waldron concludes:
Sandel is a baseball fan and, in one last example, he cites the “skyboxification” of our society as an incident of money’s baneful influence. People pay money at ballparks to isolate themselves from others in the experience of watching a baseball game. It is a sort of a metaphor for something more pervasive: “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives.” If Sandel is right, that phenomenon is bound to make it harder for us to have the public debate that is called for in this important book.
One last note. In examining the Amazon listing of Sandel’s book, I happened to notice a review by the retired University of Massachusetts economist Herbert Gintis. He takes Sandel to task for Sandel’s critique of economics, and what he has to say is well worth reading.