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Where Money & Markets Don’t Belong

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Magnum Photos
Amsterdam, 1982; photograph by Elliott Erwitt. His most recent book, Sequentially Yours, was published last year by teNeues.

5.

The other way in which Sandel helps get a debate underway is by identifying a number of distinct lines of thought that often get tangled up in our misgivings about money and markets.

One line of thought focuses on the voluntary nature of transactions. Economists tell us that markets just add choices and opportunities: no one forces anyone to take them. But consider again Project Prevention. When a crack-addicted woman signs the consent form, is she really acting voluntarily? No one is holding a gun to her head. But given her condition, she may be, as Sandel says, “coerced, in effect, by the necessity of her situation.” We might have worries of this kind, too, about desperately poor people being offered money for their children or their reproductive services or their kidneys.

A second set of concerns is about unfairness. When scarce or quality goods are allocated, should they always go to the highest bidder? Should poor people be crowded out? Sandel implies at one point that the fairness objection and the coercion objection are the same. But they are not, though they are related. There is no issue of coercion in the prison cell upgrade scheme, for example, except the background coercion that’s involved in incarceration in the first place. What is objectionable is the municipalities’ creation of two tiers of treatment within the criminal justice system, and also of course its failure to do anything to remedy the dire conditions of imprisonment for those too poor to pay.

Sandel makes an excellent point in this regard, when he says that in a society where everything is for sale, life is much harder for the poor:

The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the 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…the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger.

The effects of economic inequality of wealth or income are mitigated by the fact that some goods are provided on a basis that has nothing to do with money. It need not be egalitarian or collective provision, but just a shared sense that an unequal distribution won’t always reflect inequality in income. That’s the point about the line for the congressional hearings. Some get in and some don’t, but it is not mainly determined by what money you can offer, at least until linestanding.com enters the picture.

I wish Sandel had said more to connect his thinking on this point to work that Michael Walzer did, almost twenty years ago, in his book Spheres of Justice.5 Walzer developed a distinctive approach to distributive justice based on the idea that different goods have different social meanings and that social meanings affect the way the goods are appropriately distributed: coffee has one sort of meaning; plenary indulgences another; prison cells yet another. Money operates, however, as a sort of universal pander—cross-cutting the meaning of one good with the meanings of all sorts of other goods and of goods generally.

The danger with this is that money becomes what Walzer calls a “dominant” good—a good whose possession enables the individuals who have it to command a wide range of other goods. A person who has money can buy a nice house, good coffee, and an exotic vacation; but he can also secure a better education for his children or influence the outcome of an election. So long as money is dominant, it matters tremendously who has it. Walzer’s purpose was to tame the inexorable dynamic of a market economy, “to make money harmless,” as he put it, “or, at least, to make sure that the harms experienced in the sphere of money are not mortal, not to life and not to social standing either.”

Money enables us to define ourselves in a world of diverse things, commodities, and comforts. As Walzer puts it, spending money allows “individual men and women to choose for themselves the things they find useful or pleasing and to…shape and symbolize their identities over and above the membership they share.” But it can do that only if the basics of social membership are secure, and only if communal provision of goods like basic health, security, and subsistence is walled off from the influence of monetary inequality.

Walzer’s philosophical approach is not exactly the same as Sandel’s but their discussions complement each other, and it would have been good for Sandel to refer to the earlier account. Apart from anything else, it requires some adjustment in his claim that this is “a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism.” We started to have it in 1983, and it would be good to pick the threads of that beginning.

6.

Working more explicitly in the company of Walzer would also enrich Sandel’s elaboration of the third and most important set of concerns about “marketization.”

This is the idea that some of the goods we enjoy are degraded or corrupted by being bought and sold in markets or by being marketed in the wrong sort of way. They become different goods in effect, or the enjoyment of them becomes different. This is obvious enough in the sex-for-money example. It’s less glaring in some other cases Sandel mentions. A child reading a book is a good thing; but it is a subtly different sort of good thing when children are paid $2 by a foundation for every book they read. We might respond: “Well, the kids still have the experience of the reading” (and indeed they are tested by the fee-paying foundation to make sure they get it). But is it the same sort of experience as reading for the intrinsic pleasure of it? Isn’t there a danger that the monetary incentive will crowd out these other reasons for reading?

Sandel talks a lot in this book about proper and improper reasons for valuing certain goods. And I think he could go a considerable distance with this notion, though in fact he doesn’t take it very far. Money provides new reasons for valuing things, and those reasons tend to bully their way crassly to the forefront, with the result that it is much more difficult for subtler reasons to make their presence felt. After a while, if we become accustomed to valuing something in monetary terms, we may forget what it is like to value it for any other reason, or we become clumsy and hopelessly self-conscious in the older mode of evaluation.

In Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer explored the idea that goods themselves have social meanings, just as individuals have identities. And because the social meanings are sensitive to the circumstances of the goods’ production and distribution, what a given good actually amounts to in the hands of the person who eventually enjoys it may be different depending on the role that money has played in its circulation. For example, a kidney transplant may save a person’s life; but it is a different kind of lifesaver when the kidney has to be bought, meaning the recipient knows the organ is unavailable to those who cannot pay. Sandel hints at this idea too in one or two places. Again, it would have been good to see it developed.

I don’t think that the idea of goods being tainted or corroded by money is just symbolic; or if it is, it may be one of the more important manifestations of symbolism in our lives. People who worry about commodities produced in sweatshops or under unjust economic conditions will say that they can’t wear their shoes or taste their bananas in the same sort of way as they could before they had this knowledge. In another case, I have wondered whether security—being secure, say, from terrorist attack—feels the same or is the same sort of good when we know it has been purchased by waterboarding.6 (That’s one reason we value the rule of law as a background condition, so we can enjoy without shame the goods that the state delivers to us.)

None of this makes much sense from the economist’s point of view, for economists have to do their work with very simplified notions of consumption and satisfaction. But in the real world people relate their enjoyment of goods to all sorts of other actions and circumstances. Their cultures set up internal connections here that are deep, qualitative, and far-reaching. And I think that what lies behind our reaction to many of the examples that Sandel and Walzer cite is a sense of these connections coming apart or being brusquely and insensitively shoved aside by simpler and more overbearing incentives.

7.

When Michael Walzer developed these points, a common criticism was that social meanings are contested and volatile, and that it is unclear why people should not experiment with different modes of distribution and exchange in order to establish new social meanings for themselves.7 It is a fair point. One only has to look at the debate about same-sex marriage to see the obtuseness of insisting that a certain set of meanings about the proper distribution of state-sanctioned family and companionship should be insulated from change at all costs, simply because it is there.

The problem is that, although social meanings are sort of like public goods—enjoyed in the culture at large—the enjoyments they qualify are largely individual enjoyments. Not only that, but in cases where there is no formal public debate to be had (as there is a debate in the case of same-sex marriage), social meanings will tend to be challenged by individuals on an opportunistic basis. That’s why Sandel’s book is able to convey a sense of things getting out of hand: few people are sticking up for the values and meanings associated with the enjoyment of goods—for example, books—because there is no adequate place or forum for them to do so. Sandel has long held the view that we are impoverishing our social life by our hesitation in bringing forward moral and spiritual convictions in the public square. That’s why he thinks we need the debate whose lines he lays out in this book.

Sandel is a baseball fan and, in one last example, he cites the “skyboxification” of our society as an incident of money’s baneful influence. People pay money at ballparks to isolate themselves from others in the experience of watching a baseball game. It is a sort of a metaphor for something more pervasive: “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives.” If Sandel is right, that phenomenon is bound to make it harder for us to have the public debate that is called for in this important book.

  1. 5

    Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1983). 

  2. 6

    Jeremy Waldron, Torture, Terror, and Trade-offs: Philosophy for the White House (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 270–271. 

  3. 7

    See Ronald Dworkin’s review of Spheres of Justice in these pages, April 14, 1983, and an exchange between the authors, July 21, 1983

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