Is Everything For Sale? What Money Can’t Buy

Should we worry that we are increasingly moving towards a society where everything is for sale? In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel argues that we should for two reasons: inequality and corruption.

“Consider inequality,” he writes, “[i]n 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.”

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—political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighbourhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones—the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger. Where all good things are bought and sold, having money makes all the difference in the world.

“This,” Sandel argues, “explains why the last few decades have been especially hard on poor and middle-class families. Not only has the gap between the rich and poor widened, the commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more.”

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.

“Of course,” he writes, “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.”

The answer Sandel offers can be summed up into this paragraph:

[W]hen 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.

For now at least, there are some domains that are off limits — We don’t allow children to be bought and sold on the market. Neither do we allow citizens to sell votes. Having babies and selling them in order to make money “is a corruption of parenthood, because it treats children as things to be used rather than beings to be loved. Political corruption can be seen in the same light: when a judge accepts a bribe to render a corrupt verdict, he acts as if the judicial authority were an instrument of personal gain rather than a public trust. He degrades and demeans his office by treating it according to a lower norm than is appropriate to it.”

I find some of Sandel’s arguments lacking — limited, perhaps, by space and not thought. For instance, by Sandel’s arguments, allowing wealth to influence the quality of education received corrupts not only the public education system, but also permeates into broader civic responsibility. In this way it corrupts two domains and not one.

A simple, but unpopular, fix for this is to make private schools illegal. That’s not my argument, it’s Warren Buffett’s. If you want to fix schools:

“Make private schools illegal and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.”

While not a conclusive look at the moral limits of free markets, What Money Can’t Buy is a good place to start.