Saturday, December 10, 2016

Moral Limits on Markets?

The following is from What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel © 2012; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, NY; pp. 8-9. Dr. Michael J. Sandel is an American political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for the Harvard course "Justice." Dr. Sandel’s comments are very applicable to discussions about the economy today.

The uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard of thirty years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted. Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale? For two reasons.

#1 Inequality

In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence (or 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 neighborhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing grades – 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 explains why the last few decades have been especially hard on poor and middle-class families. Not only has the gap between rich and poor widened, the commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more.

#2 The Corrosive Tendency of Markets

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. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.

Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods they exchange. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.

Of course, 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. 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 instruments of gain and objects of use.

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