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What Money Can't Buy

Nick Spencer

The moral limits of markets
Michael Sandel
Allen Lane, 256pp

RSandel.jpg Fay Weldon once wrote a book, sponsored by the jewellery company Bulgari, in which she agreed to mention the brand at least a dozen times. Air New Zealand recently paid punters to shave their heads and sport temporary tattoos advertising the company. The company hires people to stand in line in order to reserve places for those who wish to lobby Congress. In Santa Ana in California prisoners can buy a cell upgrade. In Dallas, Texas, underachieving children are paid to read books.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which market exchange has invaded territory previously immune to its forces. They are, alas, some the saner and less offensive illustrations that Michael Sandel, a professor of Government at Harvard and former Reith lecturer, offers in this brilliantly lucid book on morality and markets.

Thus, and by comparison, several economists have suggested charging admission to refugees fleeing persecution, with the impeccable logic that those who want it most would pay (or, rather, borrow and pay) most for it. Another has proposed a system of 'marketable procreation licences' as a way of dealing with overpopulation. Judge Richard Posner advocated the use of markets to allocate babies put up for adoption. Kari Smith, a single-mother in Utah, offered to have a permanent tattoo on her face for the company that would pay for her son's education. (The tattooist apparently tried to dissuade her, unsuccessfully, and she now sports a casino's website address on her forehead.) No book I own has so many exclamation marks in its margins.

Sandel argues that there are two objections to this kind of omni-marketisation. The first is the argument from unfairness. Material inequality is such that people's ability to pay for goods is woefully different. This means that many supposedly free exchanges are nothing of the kind, with one party being effectively coerced by their poverty. This is a powerful objection, but a vulnerable one because it admits, in effect, that there is no problem with marketisation, but only with the way it operates.

The second objection is subtler but more powerful. It is the argument from corruption. Some things should not be for sale because to sell them is to degrade them, 'to treat [them] according to a lower mode of valuation than is appropriate to [them].'

This is most obviously the case with human beings. We do not buy and sell one another (any more, at least legally) because we recognise that human beings have a worth that is ineradicable and incommensurable. But the same logic extends to a whole host of other goods. We can't - or shouldn't - exchange our call to jury service, or sell our votes, or buy good grades, or pay to have friends, or purchase honours because each of these is of intrinsic worth.

Technically, of course, they could be sold. There is nothing to stop a corrupt Nobel committee selling prizes. The Wall Street Journal has reported that some top US universities have offered places to 'less than stellar' students whose parents had promised substantial donations. And the Tianjin Apology Company in China will say sorry to someone on your behalf, for a fee. But the point is that once exchanged in this way the Nobel prize stops being an honour, entry into the university stops being an achievement, and a paid apology stops being heartfelt. In other words, as Sandel says repeatedly through the book, markets leave their mark, corroding or even destroying non-market values like honour or love.

In spite of how this may sound, Sandel is no anti-market crusader. He admits that he has got things wrong in the past, citing an article he wrote for the New York Times criticising Carbon Trading, the ensuing avalanche of scathing criticism, and the eventual modification of his views. Moreover, he is clear that sometimes marketisation can work. Evidence on the impact of paying children to read is not entirely negative, for example.

What Money Can't Buy is a plea for us to think morally about life today. 'Public discourse', he laments, is rancorous and empty, and although he has the US in his sights for most of the book, much of what he says applies equally to Britain. The problem with politics, he argues, is not too much moral debate but too little.

The rejection of moral discernment and judgement in favour of the supposed panacea that is 'freedom' and 'choice' is, in the long run, enormously harmful, corroding our relationships, our civic space, our political life, and our environment, turning us all slowly into consumers.

He is aware that asking the bigger question, about the meaning and worth of goods, about the kind of people we want to be and the kind of society we want to live in, is hard work, liable to provoke public disagreement. But he is also aware that this is not a debate we can hope to avoid if we wish to live well.

Nick Spencer