With the dominance of market thinking, it is hard to argue against the exchange of some good or service between two consenting adults of money. However, Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor of Government, argues in “What Money Can’t Buy” that there are limits.
To give a sense of how pervasive markets are, he outlines the types of things that can now be bought and sold:
- A prison cell upgrade ($82 a night)
- The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy ($6,250).
- The right to immigrate the US ($500,000)
- The right to shoot endangered rhinos ($150,000)
- Stand in line overnight in Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist to attend congressional hearing ($15-$20 per hour)
- Buy the life insurance policy for an elderly person, pay the premiums and then receive the death benefit when they die.
But how can we think about these transactions if they are between consenting adults. Moreover, economists argue that the market allocates goods and services to maximise the overall satisfaction of society (i.e. social utility). So who can object to that?
Sandel argues that often consent may not always be there, especially if the person selling is very poor. On maximising social utility, he argues that the one willing to pay the most may not mean they value it most. Think of football stadiums with half-empty corporate boxes. His strongest argument is that the act of an exchange for money changes the very nature of the good or service – often for the worse.
Imagine if Nobel Prizes, votes and university entrance could be bought or sold? Or what about paying to have friends? Or a best man paying someone to write a speech for his wedding toast? Or putting adoption children up for sale? By introducing market transactions into these, the meaning of them and the values of society would fundamentally change .
Moreover, he argues that the supposed neutrality of a market transaction is not always seen in reality. He gives the example of nurseries imposing fees for late pick-ups. After their introduction, late pick-ups went up, not down as theory would dictate. It would seem that parents no longer felt guilty, an intrinsic driver, to pick their child up late.
In the end, he argues that we shouldn’t underestimate the value of non-market norms and morals. They have a depth that markets cannot match.