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What money can’t buy

We’re applying market values and principles to spheres of our lives where they don’t belong. Ken Wolf points out what happens when we put money first.

3 min read

This is the title of a book by Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel (2012). Although historians like “old” books, this one, subtitled “The Moral Limits of Markets,” seems timelier now that when it was written.

First, we see a list of some of the things that were for sale in America a decade ago. They include the “right to shoot an endangered black rhino” ($150,000); “access to the car pool lane while driving solo” ($8 in Minneapolis); and admission of your child to a prestigious university (we know how that turned out in 2021, don’t we, Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin?).

It is common for liberals like myself to condemn the greed of unrestrained capitalists. Sandel says greed isn’t the major problem. Instead, “it was the expansion of markets and market values into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

Sandel reminds us of the many things we “incentivize” with cash, including good grades, weight loss, and emigration by wealthy foreigners to the United States. Several decades ago, a Chinese company in Tianjin offered, for a fee, to apologize on your behalf to someone you had offended. And if you were chosen to toast the bride and groom at a wedding but were functionally illiterate, you could pay someone at ThePerfectToast.com website to write one for you for a mere $125. (The price for a “custom toast” has now increased to $155.)

We find some of these incentives both amusing and relatively harmless, but Sandel describes many far more substantive forms of bribery that make us wince. In 1997 a woman named Barbara Harris founded a North Carolina-based charity called Project Prevention. It paid drug-addicted women $300 to be either sterilized or adopt long-term birth control. She even advertised it with a flyer that said: “Don’t Let a Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit.” (Sandel, pp. 4-46)

From an economic viewpoint, this doesn’t necessarily seem offensive. Harris felt great empathy for drug-addicted newborns and even adopted several of these children. Why not use money to solve a serious and expensive social problem?

The central argument of Sandel’s book is that the study of Economics was created to help us understand the market-place, largely the buying and selling of tangible goods. But buying and selling has expanded in recent decades so that now “market values play a greater and greater role in social life,” and “increasingly govern the whole of life. It is time to ask whether we want to live this way.”

Sandel argues that there are some things that money should not be able to buy. Just as humans should not be bought and sold as slaves, maybe kidneys and other human organs or pregnancies should not be for sale. On a lighter note, he suggests that we should not see advertisements on police cars or over urinals in public restrooms.

There are “nonmarket norms” associated with things such as health, education, procreation, and government. All of these promote public welfare and should be supported through taxes or fees. We should not put a price on or privatize the public good in a democracy.

There are two objections, in Sandel’s view, for keeping some things off of the market. One is based on fairness. Some people are too poor to “enter the market” for a new kidney or a surrogate mother, for example.

The other objection is moral. Some things are degraded by being sold, since they are public resources or things that should not be seen as commodities. This would include such things as public buildings or events, prayers, and school activities. How soon might we see: “This recess is brought to you by Michael’s Music Store?”

All these practices have been growing for three decades at least. Monetizing more and more human activities and social pastimes, events, and venues (e.g. naming rights for athletic facilities for example) are a clear sign to children that our society values money over people. Money used to talk; now it screams at us everywhere.

That is one reason I am a Democrat. Our party tries to put people first. In this age of capitalist excesses, it is becoming harder and harder to do.


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Ken Wolf

Ken Wolf spent 40 years teaching European and World History, punctuated by several administrative chores, at Murray State University, retiring in 2008. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)



All results from Tuesday’s primary

All results from Tuesday’s primary

Here’s a list of all the results from Kentucky’s 2024 primary election that were reported on the Board of Elections site. These include federal, state legislative, and some judges and county attorneys.

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