What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Can anything be bought and sold? Are there no limits to what is for sale?

We are familiar with the fact that if you have money you can get to the head of almost any line, whether at the airport or the doctor's office. Some people sell advertising space on their foreheads, some sell the use of their wombs for other people's pregnancies, some their kidneys. In Michael Sandel's resonant phrase, what once were market economies have become market societies. As his new book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, argues, almost anything can in fact be purchased, or at least achieved by bribe: Sandel makes a telling example out of the practice of paying high school students to read.

That sort of practice is not hard to recognize as undesirable, even corrupting. But this book makes the grim case that such bottom-line thinking has become alarmingly pervasive: "As markets and market-oriented thinking reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms -- health, education, procreation, refugee policy, environmental protection -- this dilemma arises more and more often,"  Sandel writes. "What should we do when the promise of economic growth or economic efficiency means putting a price on goods we consider priceless?"
An illustration of the dilemma is provided by Africa's rare and endangered black rhino. These highly dangerous and difficult-to-hunt animals are, for precisely these reasons, much prized by trophy hunters. To me the desire to kill one seems not only minimally comprehensible but also maximally repugnant, yet the South African government, in the interests of protecting the species, has elected to permit limited hunting so that farmers can have a lucrative reason for breeding them and protecting them from poachers. Given that poaching reduced the black rhino population from 25,000 to 2,500 in the two decades after 1970, using market incentives to protect them appears justified. The first person to kill one legally for a fee, an American financier, paid $150,000 for the privilege. "Subsequent customers," Sandel dryly observes, "included a Russian petroleum billionaire, who paid to kill three."

How far can this kind of thing go? For example: how long will it be before a severely cash-strapped government will be tempted to sell people-killing licenses? There are sure to be people out there who would pay to shoot, say, a condemned murderer. One could add to the fun by setting the the murderer free in the fields, and the shooters could go after him in helicopters -- an updated version of the Roman circus where gladiators dispose of those already given the thumbs-down. Come to think of it: what about creating a market in killing Taliban, allowing people to buy an opportunity to do so from a drone-control center in the safety of Texas? The variations and possibilities are legion. But if (as I hope we do) we think these are horrible suggestions, then we think that there are moral limits to markets. And that is exactly Sandel's point.

Sandel argues that there are two arguments always in play when debates arise about what it is appropriate for money to buy. They can be phrased as objections, one concerning fairness and the other concerning corruption. He writes, "The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve." The market for human kidneys, for example, preys on the poor, and the choice made by an individual to sell a kidney in such circumstances is not genuinely voluntary. That is the fairness objection. The corruption objection is that a trade in the organs of living humans degrades and objectifies them into collections of spare parts. As Sandel puts it, "The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity.... The corruption objection...points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices."

These are powerful points. Oscar Wilde once made a disparaging remark about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing; Sandel's point is that seeing everything as having a price is corrosive of value. That is surely right. He multiplies examples of cases where the market impulse has just such a corrosive effect, not only on things but on human relations, too. Can marriage be understood in cost-benefit terms alone? What are we losing if we pay students to read the books assigned for their courses?

But as Sandel acknowledges, there are plenty of cases where it is not clear whether a money value is wholly inappropriate. Take the case of a person waiting in line for theater tickets on someone else's behalf. Poverty might drive a person to do this, but doing this is not so extreme a sacrifice as selling a kidney. Surely if someone sells his time, he is only doing what everyone does anyway. Someone who pays a surrogate to wait in line is demonstrating a willingness to bear the cost of realizing his desire to have the tickets; the market is directing the tickets to the person keenest to have them. As Sandel also notes, though, in this case the tickets are going to the person not only with the greatest desire to have them but the greatest ability to secure them.

This implies the question of fairness again. But it also obliges us to inspect an assumption that underlies the fairness complaint: whether the fact that different people have different levels of resource is always unjust. What about the greater talent or harder work that results in a person's accumulating resources greater than those of a less capable or lazier person? If the better-resourced person uses a moiety of his resources to pay a surrogate to wait in line -- a surrogate who might be pleased to earn money this way -- where is the harm? Is it not, on the contrary, a case of mutual benefit? And surely mutual benefit is the aim and outcome of many monetary transactions between people.

Critics of Sandel's view might point to another assumption lurking in the background of common intuitions about money, namely, that money is dangerous, even intrinsically bad, because of the ready way it can corrupt some -- too many -- who touch it. Critics might grant the justice of this suspicion for cases where money is fetishized as an object of desire in its own right; but they will argue that, objectively viewed, money is nothing but a convenience, and at least many people who desire it do so because they really desire other genuinely worthwhile objects or activities, such as travel, a home, the acquisition of new skills or experiences. The point is obvious enough, but it gets overlooked when we forget the original point of money -- its instrumental nature and the utility it represents -- in the presence of examples of money being used for the purposes Sandel criticizes.

Critics will also pounce upon Sandel's view that there is a clearly discernible hierarchy of goods that allow us to see what is and is not marketable. "When market reasoning it applied to sex, procreation, child rearing, education, health, criminal punishment, immigration policy and environmental protection, it's less plausible to assume that everyone's preferences are equally worthwhile," Sandel writes. "In morally charged arenas such as these, some ways of valuing goods may be higher, more appropriate than others." These last dozen words will be the critics' goad: they express the same idea that got John Stuart Mill into trouble when he asserted that some things (e.g., reading Aeschylus) are intrinsically more valuable than other things (e.g., drinking a beer). Who, they will ask, has the right to say such a thing?

These objections notwithstanding, Sandel's case is compelling. Buying a bride, bribing people in desperate circumstances to sell a bodily organ, making people do bad things by paying them more than their scruples can resist, allowing people to do bad things because they can pay a lot to do them -- such things add up to a profound corrosion of values. Sandel quotes a pair of economists who claim that their profession "believes the world has not yet invented a problem that [an economist] cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme. His solution may not always be pretty -- it may involve coercion or exorbitant penalties or the violation of civil liberties -- but the original problem, rest assured, will fixed." This reminds one of the Mafia's unrefusable offers, and the horse's head in the bed that makes the point about them. Of course there are incentives that will overcome almost any obstacle or principle. But it is precisely Sandel's point that this should not be so, and that no one should be asked, as if it were perfectly all right that they would agree, to set aside every consideration of value or good if offered enough money to do so.

The task Sandel's book invites us to undertake is to discern where the lines should be drawn between the marketable and the unmarketable, the things that have a price and those that are priceless. We might have individual views about this, but Sandel's point is a larger one: that we should formulate such a view as a society, as a culture; and we should do so long before matters so evolve that -- say -- shooters can buy licenses to hunt down convicted criminals in our own woods and fields.

by pietje on ‎05-12-2012 07:51 AM

I enjoyed Mr Grayling's review of Mr Sandel's article on morality by fee. I posted the following in my own blog a couple of weeks ago and by eerie coincidence. Mr Sandel has taken the premise a step further, I thought the judiciary could simply grant licences to executioners by extension, but Mr Sander has thought of selling licenses to the highest bidders, as a business propostition. Brilliant! Simply because those poor Norwegian kids never got a license to defend themselves, gunned down and killed in cold blood while this animal laughed at their writhing.


Norway (II)


Poof goes the attacker.


Having forfeited all his rights to life by turning his back on human consideration, here’s what the Norwegian Judiciary should consider:


Clear the island of Utoya, surround it, and let Breivik loose on it. First by way of punishment he’ll have to prowl for his own food, like a big cat, for several months. Then send in the hunters, who’ll quietly chase him down, shooting him whenever they get a glimpse of him. A terror game by which it may finally be driven home to him what he did to those innocent youngsters, an evil hunter hunted.


Arrogance is a form of stupidity, combined with a degree of total moral insanity it is a lethal cocktail.


‘Conviction’ served this way creates terrifying hands and concept killing.


Conceptual and installation art is not art because it is not artful, devoid of artisan craft, love and aesthetic.


Conceptual killing is the worst kind of killing, because it is dispassionate, not for gain except the total moral colonisation of other members of society.


There’s only one way to overcome it, maintaining life and freedom.




So please don’t confuse signals, because the premise I’ve been trying to make is that the creature looking so much like a human being… simply isn’t one!



Download Anthony Steyning’s mid-atlantic E-Novel: A Kiss by the Clowns

by Saksin on ‎05-12-2012 10:23 AM

I have not read Sandel's book, but am left unimpressed by the glimpse of its arguments provided in Grayling's review. These things WILL be sold and bought, the only question being whether on the black or the "white" market. And come to think of it, why deprive ourselves of the source of insight into the moral fibre of our fellows offered by the knowledge of who is willing to sell (or buy) what, at what price, under what personal circumstances? Nothing says that the mere fact that a given type of transaction is not prohibited by law also means that we must APPROVE of it. In other words, the "as if it were perfectly all right" of Grayling's next to last paragraph by no means is a necessary corollary of the rest of the argument. The fact that there was no German law against cannibalism by mutual consent (and assuming we do not classify the bizarre German case of it as murder) does not mean that WE have to think that it was "perfectly all right" to proceed with the same, though the two participants obviously thought so. That case shows, moreover, that money is not a requirement for such market transactions. This one was a case of barter, namely a barter of services (the opportunity to fulfill the wish to be cannibalized for the opportunity to fulfill the wish to cannibalize). Finally, what "shocks us" can hardly be regarded as a valid standard for moral reasoning, since what does so changes from age to age and from culture to culture. 

by hanmeng on ‎05-12-2012 01:15 PM

There's no way I can buy this book. This review has convinced me that someone who prostitutes himself by selling his writing is little different than someone who prostitutes himself by selling his body. I don't want to join in the degradation and objectification that Sandel has apparently willingly subjected himself to. Plus what if I have more money than he does? It would not be fair for me to exploit him that way.



Why doesn't he just give his book away for free?

by Saksin on ‎05-13-2012 03:36 AM

Hang on, hanmeng! By your reasoning every market transaction is prostitution. But maybe you wrote tongue in cheek, in fact rejecting the entire argument of the book, a stance that certainly deserves serious consideration. And while we are at it, a little parenthesis: actual prostitution obviously does not involve the sale of any body, as is so often erroneously claimed. A prostitute sells a sexual service, not her body (or how could she walk away from that transaction still in possession of her body???).

by JoJoline on ‎05-14-2012 01:00 AM


Tut tut, semantics. Hookers (and there are male ones too) don't sell their bodies, but they do lease them and charge quite specifically by time - per hour, per night, etc.


by Saksin on ‎05-14-2012 05:53 AM

Re: JoJoline:

As most people selling a service do, reinforcing my point. Moreover, it is not "their bodies" that they lease. If that were the case they might as well be under anesthesia, which MIGHT work for necrophiliac customers but for no others. Rather what they sell is their active consent to and participation in a sexual act, and that is not a matter of access to a "body" but of interaction with a person, as anyone who has been at either end of such a transaction is bound to know. 

About the Columnist
A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

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