(Creative Commons)

(Creative Commons)

Essay by Jakub Drápal on book: What money can´t buy: the moral limits of markets by Michael J. Sandel, 1st edition 2012, publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

1. Introduction

The Moral Limits of Markets, subtitle of Michael J. Sandel´s book, does not express fully what the book is about. Markets are generally viewed as impersonal institutions that operate on a bigger scale – as between nations or brokers. Michael Sandel brings markets closer to our everyday living and shows how we, as a society or as individuals, form or destroy moral limits of markets with our actions. Central question is “Should it matter?”

The book is called “What Money can´t buy”, while the biggest part of the book is dedicated to a question What money shouldn´t buy1 even though Sandel shows that the distinction between these two is not as sharp as it seems at first glance. Sandel chooses as an example of what you cannot buy a friendship and as a thing that can be bought, but shouldn´t be a wedding toast or an apology – a token of friendship. Why? The fact that it was bought diminishes its value.

2. Two arguments against markets

2.1. Corruption argument

There are two basic arguments against allowing market to enter into every aspect of our lives. The first one is an argument based on corruption of the thing that should be put up for sale. In order to answer this question we have to first ask ourselves what is the nature of the thing put up for sale. Will the fact that it will be valued by market alter its character or our behavior towards it? Economists say it will not – everything might be put up for sale and everything has its value that might be expressed in money. But is it true?

Sandel proves economists are wrong. One of great advantages of his book is that it shows many real examples how typical understanding of markets does not fully comprehend the world. Take for example an action performed by Israeli day-care center which wanted to lessen late pick-ups of children by introducing a fine for them. Soon after the rate of tardy pick-ups increased2. Why? If parents pay for tardy pick-ups, they don´t feel guilty any more for being late. There was a moral stigma about coming late. Not anymore! When you start paying for being late, you do not feel bad at all. The payment did not work as a fine, but rather as a fee. Difference? Paying a fine still carries with it some sort of moral judgment – you´ve done something bad, while fee is just a payment you have to perform in order to get the ends you want. For example payment for littering Grand Canyon is a fine, not a fee, because even if a billionaire found it profitable for him to throw away litter and pay 100$, we would still condemn his behavior as bad. One has to take in consideration while introducing payments for not wanted behavior, whether the payments will be taken as fines or as fees. If they become taken as fees, the moral obligation that fuels some of our actions evaporates.

This can be applied to not wanted behavior as to wanted behavior. While sensing that we can do something charitable or fulfill our civic duty, we are more apt to do it without any remuneration. But when a payment is offered to us – we refuse. Why? Monetary offer corrupts our moral stands. Thus lawyers in USA refused a legal aid for 30 $ an hour for elder citizens, but were willing to do it for free. 51 % of Swiss citizens in one small village were willing to accept a nuclear waste repository in their community if parliament decided so. When poll makers offered them monetary incentive (8700$ per person and year) support went down not up3. People felt bribed. When I was little I was paid for some time by my parents to not bite my nails. My pocket money went up significantly. After some time my parents lowered the amount and then finally called it off. Did I continue in not biting my nails? Not at all! Since I had no incentive (and monetary incentive didn´t do much in long term), I happily bit my nails. Why? “Because bribes are manipulative. They bypass persuasion and substitute an external reason for an intrinsic one.”4 Sandel describes an example of schools where they paid students for good grades – which one was the successful one? Different schools offered different incentives – to students, to teachers, different amounts, but school where these incentives brought some outcome was a school, where the extra money made academic achievement “cool”. Education was changed not by the money itself, but by the attitude in the school, that has changed there. As student I admit that especially in the last weeks of school, I studied hard partly because I knew, that if I got at least B´s in remaining exams I would get scholarship. However was it the most important motivation? It was not. Only the thought that I am able to have straight A´s that I can be one of the best is a great motivation for me. And yes, money makes it more “cool”.

Not only markets crowd out moral norms, their introduction just for a little time can destroy them effectively. “When after about twelve weeks, the [Israeli] day-care centers eliminated the fine, the new, elevated rate of late arrivals persisted. Once the monetary payment had eroded the moral obligation to show up in time, the old sense of responsibility proved difficult to revive.”5 In Czech Republic a parallel can be made to senior care. Once a great idea – seniors who could not take care of themselves may go into common houses – such as Masaryk´s mansions. Today? Erosion of our moral obligation to take care of our old parents still continues and is even one of the main contra arguments of Arabic countries together with abortions against introducing human rights – this is what we want to introduce in their countries? It may be an argument in debate over our social system as a whole. We may want people not state to donate money and time to charitable work, but until people will understand it as their moral obligation (which they do not now-a-days), state has to act.

Thus when contemplating about our works in society, its moral convictions should be taken in consideration. Jan Fischer, one of the presidential candidates has a team of volunteers who collect needed signatures for his campaign6. Vladimír Dlouhý, another candidate, pays 1 $ (20 CZK) for each signature, if at least 20 of them are delivered to him. Even though he does not directly pay to those who sign his petitions, it might eventualy happen on secondary markets. No surprise that Vladimír Dlouhý is economist. If we compare two approaches to collecting signatures under petitions for presidential candidates, we find in one of them beginning erosion of value of our vote. Sitting in electoral commissions is remunerated – it´s national habit. Will become another signing under petitions would be done only for a payment? Will the outcome be worth of destroying our civic duty or moral obligation? The answers vary. For this reason we have to at least discuss where to allow markets to enter and do not only laisser faire.

2.2. Fairness argument

Second argument against introducing markets to every sphere of our lives is a matter of fairness, while the first was a matter of corruption of the nature of a value. Does everyone have the same access to the choices he or she makes? In France, the word egalité is very common. We (and French even more) have to ask: In the world where everything is up to sale, will there be any fraternité and liberté? Concerning fraternité Sandel answers sharply: “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. … It´s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live. Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”7

More intriguing question is whether there is a liberty in market choices for everyone who takes part. This is the question of fairness. Whether every vendor or buyer takes part voluntary in market exchange. Whether Utah single mother who sells her forehead for 10,000 $ to display casino´s website in order to get proper education for her son act voluntary.8 Sandel states, that someone “may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.”9 So even though some action might found not corrupting, when it is found unfair, we have to reconsider it once again.

3. Practical example

Situation that might withstand the condition of not-corrupting the activity itself may not withstand the condition of fairness. Let´s take an example from recently discussed topic on Czech legal blog Wal-law (jinepravo.blogspot.com) about Law and economics concerning penal law.10

Should we be able to pay a fine in place of imprisonment for example for less serious crimes? Why not says Law and economics represented by blogger Libor Dušek! In his opinion only small percentage of people would not be able to pay the fine and should be subjected to more severe treatments – in the end imprisoned. Arguments against this practice include corruption and fairness.

Concerning corruption might the nature of crime be altered by the fact that you can buy your way out of it? Punishment should be re-educative as well as preventive and unpleasant to the offender. Would a wealthy banker treat a monetary punishment as a fee or as a fine? According to the Law and Economics he is prone to treat it as fee. It might stop carry a moral stigma with it. While having to work for publicly profitable ends will always carry moral stigma with it. If you give a choice to wealthy banker to pay 100 000 crowns or sweep pavements for 100 hours, I bet my shoes he chooses to pay. Why? Not because gaining 1000 CZK per hour is not much, but because sweeping streets is dishonoring. But why should not be a wealthy banker – or judge – dishonored if laymen should be? In effect this is the fairness argument. The corruption argument furthermore says: Even if every person has the same income, you should not be able to buy yourself out from the moral wrong you´ve done. Why? Because the nature of sanction lays in the feeling that offender should become conscious of impropriety of his behavior. This is accomplished by imposing such sanction individually.

Setting monetary payment as a standard might not be wrong. But it should be done after considering attitude of society towards money and the effects to the sanctions. Not after considering what is the most profitable to the state. Of course it may be one of arguments for certain solution. But it should not be decisive one.

4. Conclusion

All together book “What Money can´t buy” from Michael J. Sandel proposes new views of old problems, sums up and classifies opposition towards market driven society. While first part of book is more theoretical and Sandel presents there his ideas – corruption and fairness arguments – in chapters 4 and 5 he presents a heap of examples without any bigger theory behind it – he expresses his opinions about recent topics in USA and in my opinion he wants to spark a debate about these themes. While reading last pages of the book, reader isn´t aware of coming end (Notes and Index take up 40 pages) and turns the last page with excitement: “The writer just touched the right ideas, let’s see how he will tackle them” says to himself. Suddenly it hits him. The book just ended. Reader feels as ejected to the space while in one moment he understands that the rocket that brought him there will not get him farther – it is up to him to continue the journey.

“So, in the end the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”11

Jakub Drápal

  1. compare pg. 96
  2. pg. 119
  3. pg. 115
  4. pg. 59
  5. pg. 119
  6. To be fair, there are two kinds of Jan Fischer´s volunteers. Around fifty of them are not paid and another hundred is paid.
  7. pg. 203pg. 184
  8. pg. 184
  9. pg. 111
  10. http://jinepravo.blogspot.cz/2012/04/jak-premyslet-o-pokutach_19.html
  11. last paragraph, pg. 203