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Where Money & Markets Don’t Belong

Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos
James Dean signing autographs during a Valentine’s Day dance at his old high school, Fairmount, Indiana, 1955


Pecunia non olet, we are told. Money doesn’t stink. All it does is open up the way to making exchanges; it’s a liberating medium for connecting one set of preferences to another. But doesn’t money taint the goods it is exchanged for, when those goods have not normally been distributed in the marketplace?

It’s hard to generalize, but we can think of some obvious examples. Baby-selling is one. Some people are desperate for children and others would quite willingly list their kids on eBay. But a suggestion some years ago by Richard Posner and a colleague that we might look into the prospect of establishing a market for the adoption of babies to put the demand side into more efficient contact with the supply side struck many people as obscene.1 As the Supreme Court of New Jersey said, when it banned commercial surrogacy in the famous “Baby M” case: “There are, in a civilized society, some things that money can not buy.”2

As with babies, so with sex. Why do we ban, or try to ban, prostitution? The old taboos about unmarried sex have faded but surely it remains illegal because we think that the selling of sex degrades the meaning of ordinary unmonetized intimacy between two people as the consummation of their love. And this tainting of an activity applies also to goods of the spirit. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, a man could go to a prostitute and then pay the church for remission of some of the punishment waiting for him in the hereafter. “When money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory’s fire springs.” But isn’t contrition tainted when redemption is purchased in this way? Or never mind plenary indulgences, right now a Manhattan firm offers this service for a fee to its corporate clients:

Sorry should not be the hardest word, not least because acknowledging poor service can actually enhance customer or staff loyalty. We can provide an appropriately structured corporate apology programme that matches the reward to the circumstances, and builds advocacy among those who may otherwise become hostile to your organisation.

If I pay your firm to be sorry on my behalf, doesn’t the exchange of money undermine the sincerity of “my” apology?

Coming downmarket now from these high-minded moral concerns, what about baseball autographs? Kids used to hang out at spring training, leaning on the rails for hours to get the autograph of their favorite player. Now dealers follow the players in their cars, intercepting them at stores and restaurants, to get signatures that they can then sell on eBay for big bucks. (Or sometimes a dealer will hire an appealing-looking kid to make his autograph request for him.) Doesn’t this affect the way the customer thinks of his autograph collection?

But money must be good for something, mustn’t it? When I buy a cup of coffee, the meaning of the beverage is not sullied by the transaction in the way that sex is sullied by the market on the streets. Even though I can look at the price that coffee commands as a commodity (coffee futures are down 25 percent from their January peak), even though I pay too much for my caffè latte (the one in front of me cost $4.05), it is still delicious. I enjoy it even though I know that without a money economy—linking me with a store in lower Manhattan, with some commodity traders, and indirectly with a grower in Colombia—this particular delight would be impossible. The involvement of money doesn’t seem to have flattened its quality. So what’s the difference? What makes something more like sex and less like coffee?


Michael Sandel’s new book presents, by my count, more than a hundred examples like the ones I have given, of what appear to be intrusions of money and markets into parts of life where they do not belong. Many of these examples I had never heard of before, though they are culled mainly from newspapers. Some of them are quite disturbing and I think they are presented by Sandel for that reason.

There are, for instance, cities in California that offer prison cell upgrades for as much as $127 per night—clean, one-person cells away from the general prison population (most of whom cannot dream of affording that amount). “Our sales pitch at the time was, ‘Bad things happen to good people,’” Janet Givens, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Police Department, told The New York Times, and other jail officials added that the typical pay-to-stay client is a man in his late thirties who has been convicted of driving while intoxicated.

Another example: an outfit called LineStanding.com offers clients in Washington, D.C., a “premier concierge service where standers wait at a designation of your choosing until they are able to rendezvous with you, the attendee.” Congressional hearings are open to the public, but space is limited on a first-come first-served basis. Many Capitol Hill lobbyists say that they are too busy to wait in line: queuing, it is said, “discriminates in favor of people who have the most free time.” The “standers,” apparently, are mostly retirees or, increasingly, homeless people. They accept $15–$20 an hour to wait in line and then, as the time arrives for the hearing to begin, their suited clients hook up with the them, and many ordinary citizens who have been patiently waiting for a seat are crowded out by the well-funded lobbyists.

Or a third: Project Prevention is a charity organized by a North Carolina woman, Barbara Harris, devoted to reducing the number of children born to drug-addicted mothers. (Harris is the adoptive parent of a crack-addicted baby.) It offers what it calls “cash incentives to women and men addicted to drugs and/or alcohol to use long term or permanent birth control.” More precisely, the deal is that a drug-addicted woman gets $300 in return for being sterilized. The charity and its supporters say they are not worried that the women will spend the $300 on drugs: “I don’t care what they do,” said one donor, “as long as they get their tubes tied.” But Sandel is adamant in his denunciation: the program’s founder, he writes, “treats drug-addicted and HIV-positive women as damaged baby- making machines that can be switched off for a fee. Those who accept her offer acquiesce in this degrading view of themselves.”

There are scores of other examples in this book of degrading and distorting uses of money, ranging from police cars in North Carolina “covered, NASCAR-style, with ads and commercial logos” to investors in insurance policies taken out on the lives of strangers who are old or who have AIDS. The purchasers of these policies wait like buzzards for their investments to mature, and many of them report what they call “horror stories” of the deaths they have invested in being unacceptably postponed. One company in this market went out of business as a result of the breakthrough in retroviral drugs.


Sandel’s sense is that there has been a considerable increase in recent years in the momentum of these monetary intrusions into areas where money doesn’t belong. Not everyone concurs in his condemnation. Many economists will say, even for the examples just discussed, that markets and market incentives simply add extra options to human affairs. They put more of us in touch with one another, they offer us choices we hadn’t expected to enjoy, they satisfy more of our existing preferences, or—better still—they enable us to develop new preferences against a larger and more varied background of opportunity.

But the economists’ optimism is not self-certifying. The disturbing nature of the examples Sandel cites is at least a warning that something may be wrong; and if it is, we had better find ways of thinking about the mark that markets leave on the transactions they facilitate. If this is controversial, then we had better find ways of debating it, and ways of responding socially or legally where there is a consensus that important values are being corroded.

Michael Sandel is the right person to embark on this debate. He is a political philosopher at Harvard, associated in the 1980s with communitarian criticism of modern liberalism—insisting that ties of family and community must be taken into account in any theory of justice. His first book was about the corrosion of meaning in people’s lives by an overly abstract and individualistic rights-based approach to ethics and society.3 These days he is known as the teacher of one of the world’s most successful college courses—Moral Reasoning 22: Justice, in the Government Department and the Kennedy School at Harvard (the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on public television, and the subject of a remarkably well-written and popular book).4 He is just the person to get to the bottom of the tangle of moral damage that is being done by markets to our values, if only because he is less coy than many of his colleagues about engaging directly with what people value when they think about what makes life worth living.


One thing Michael Sandel does not do in What Money Can’t Buy is loom over the examples he cites as a sort of philosophical censor, announcing on his own authority that this or that intrusion of money and markets into human affairs is wrong. He has his opinions and he expresses them: I quoted earlier his rather severe denunciation of Project Prevention (the program to sterilize crack addicts). But mostly I think he wants to open the discussion up rather than nail it down; he is insistent only when there is a real possibility that certain aspects of value, or the very presence of values of a certain sort, will be altogether neglected.

One case he cites involves ordinary people (rather than Harvard philosophers) kicking back against the monetizing of their affairs. In the 1990s, the government of Switzerland identified a small mountain village called Wolfenschiessen as a possible location for a nuclear waste repository. There was to be a local referendum on the issue, but before that some economists conducted a survey. They asked the residents: Would you vote to accept a nuclear waste repository in your community if the Swiss parliament voted to put it there? A bare majority said they would. Then the economists asked another question: Would you vote to accept the repository if the parliament voted to pay each resident of the village monetary compensation—quite a lot of money: as much as the equivalent of several thousand dollars per annum, higher than local monthly per capita income—for locating it there? In response to this question, support for the repository collapsed from 51 percent to 25 percent. The citizens of Wolfenschiessen said this was a matter on which they should not be bribed.

Of course those offering the compensation would resist that description. But whether you call it bribe or compensation, a monetary payment threatened, in Sandel’s words, to transform a civic question into a pecuniary one, leaving no room for any sense that this was simply a civic duty. And without the help of philosophical intervention, the villagers saw it this way from the start and responded accordingly. The siting of the repository is still under consideration.

  1. 1

    Elisabeth M. Landes and Richard A. Posner, “The Economics of the Baby Shortage,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 7 (1978), p. 323. 

  2. 2

    In re Baby M, 537 A.2d 1227, 109 N.J. 396 (N.J. 02/03/1988) 

  3. 3

    Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982). 

  4. 4

    Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). 

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