Where Money & Markets Don’t Belong

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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 …

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  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)