Perhaps each of the seven deadly sins must have its day, politically. “Lust is good” might have been the rallying cry of the 1960s and ’70s counterculture. Twenty-five years ago Gordon Gekko announced mock-earnestly in Wall Street that “greed is good,” ratifying the Reagan Revolution and boosting the morale of the one percent. Let us hope that an Age of Envy will dawn soon. American society today needs nothing more urgently than a growing conviction among the bottom half or two-thirds of the population that the gross economic inequality currently prevailing is unfair, undesirable, and unnecessary.

As the great theorist of nonviolence Gene Sharp has pointed out (and Antonio Gramsci before him, and David Hume before both of them), every society—not only democracies—rests on consent. “Acceptance” or “resignation” may actually be a less misleading term—“consent” implies an active, explicit affirmation, whereas all Sharp, Gramsci, and Hume meant is that if the large majority of a population ever became sufficiently fed up to withdraw from participation in a society’s dominant institutions, the society would cease to function, at least along the old lines. This suggests that the analysis of any drastically unequal, obviously unjust society like ours should begin with the question: Why do most people put up with it?

The legitimating ideology of contemporary America is complex, but one main element of it is represented by the phrase “free market.” That phrase stands for something like this: Except when fraud or violence is present, every economic transaction among adults is morally permissible, and any interference with it is unjust. Shorter version: Everything’s for sale.

In What Money Can’t Buy Michael Sandel goes far to document the extent to which that radical proposition has penetrated everyday life. Honor is for sale: university buildings used to bear the names of great scholars or administrators; sports arenas of the teams that played there or the community that rooted there. Now they are named after donors or sold to corporations. The environment is for sale, in the form of a market for pollution permits, as well as the sale to rich sportsmen of the right to kill endangered species. Citizenship may soon be for sale: influential economists have proposed selling immigration visas at auction or for a set price, say $50,000. (Of course, this may require changing the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.) Sandel does not mention Citizens United; perhaps he thinks the fact that political office and influence are for sale in the United States is too obvious to mention.

Money buys other privileges. “Concierge medicine,” the practice of putting doctors on lucrative retainers, assures the rich of immediate and individualized medical care. “Line-standing” companies take hefty fees for holding places in a queue for events like Congressional committee hearings, Supreme Court sessions, or “Shakespeare in the Park,” which in theory are free and open to the public, first come first served. Ticket scalping, corporate skybox seats, express-lane highway passes and exemptions from speed limits, bypassing lines to board airplanes—ever more fine-grained varieties of differential treatment are being priced and sold.

Since much of the value of Sandel’s book lies in its demonstration of just how far the commercial spirit has penetrated everyday life, perhaps a few more examples are in order. There are legacy admissions: a fair number of less qualified applicants to prestigious universities are admitted each year in the expectation that their rich parents will become donors. There is the sale of organs: increasingly, kidneys are sold and wombs are rented, generally by people who are economically insecure, even desperate. There is the outsourcing of national security to private companies—in effect, the defense of the country by mercenaries rather than citizens. Public buses and even police cars are covered with ads. Apologies, wedding toasts, birthday gifts: no rich person need waste time personally attending to any of these social amenities; all of them can be taken care of by strangers for a fee.          

Well, so what? According to neoclassical economic theory, markets maximize human welfare. They ensure that what is produced or done is what is wanted, and that what is wanted is what is produced or done, in just the right proportions, or as nearly as any earthly institution can. But every theory rests on simplifying assumptions. Neoclassical economic theory rests on assumptions about behavior, institutions, and information—the motives of agents, the prerequisites of production, and the conditions of exchange—that once seemed like plausible simplifications, at least to those people who were happy with the policy implications of the theory: namely, that government action to increase employment, redistribute income, or protect workers and the environment was likely to be counterproductive.

It has become increasingly clear over the past couple of decades, however, that the assumptions of neoclassical economics are not in fact plausible, though because of academic inertia and the political power of those who oppose government action, market fundamentalism retains considerable prestige. What Money Can’t Buy does not take on the theory directly. It asks, rather: What is the moral character of a society in which everything is for sale? Should everything have a price? Is there a difference between the price and the value of a thing?

Most of us undoubtedly believe that there are things that money can’t, or shouldn’t, buy—love, devotion, and trust, for example. The famed neoclassical economist Gary Becker thinks otherwise:

[A] person decides to marry when the utility expected from marriage exceeds that expected from remaining single or from additional search for a more suitable mate. Similarly, a married person terminates his (or her) marriage when the utility anticipated from becoming single or marrying someone else exceeds the loss in utility from separation, including…separation from one’s children, division of joint assets, legal fees, and so forth. Since many persons are looking for mates, a market in marriages can be said to exist.

Perhaps, but few people would admit unblushingly to marrying chiefly for money.

Likewise, most of us would say (however deeply or shallowly we’ve thought about it) that everyone ought to have a fair chance in life, that those who are suffering most should be cared for first, that the best education should go to those who can make the best use of it; and in general, that need or desert should be taken into account in the distribution of scarce resources, not merely the ability to pay. Skillfully, Sandel parses this popular intuition into two distinct sources of unease about the commercialization of everything. “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.” Without minimizing the first objection, Sandel concentrates on the second.

If we pay students to read books and mercenaries to fight the country’s wars, then we risk forgetting (or not teaching the next generation) what it is to love learning or love one’s country. If it became common to rent poor women’s wombs because the legal mother is too busy or lazy or vain to carry the baby, we would risk diluting the intensity of maternal love. If we sell naming rights to academic and athletic buildings, we risk forgetting that it is intellectual excellence and community spirit that we should want to foster among the people who frequent those buildings, not merely reverence for wealth. It’s not inevitable, perhaps, that thoroughgoing commercialization will crowd out nonmarket values. But it’s a grave risk. Bad currency drives out good; weeds smother more delicate growths; and in general, coarse, grasping, self-regarding behavior, when unchecked, undermines civic virtue.

Most practices beyond straightforward commercial transactions have social meanings and moral purposes, Sandel reminds us. Financial incentives alone cannot sustain a society of any complexity or richness. Shared values are indispensable; deliberation must supplement—indeed, must structure—markets. “Such deliberations,” he writes,

touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.

Secular liberals have been criticized, with some justice, for their reluctance to discuss abortion, divorce, pornography, promiscuity, and other sexual and family matters on their merits rather than strictly in terms of privacy rights. Privacy is not the only value worth taking account of in social and cultural debates, any more than efficiency is the only value worth taking account of in political and economic debates. Sandel is right: vigorous (though courteous) and continuing argument about the good life, however difficult to maintain, is essential to a healthy democracy.

Is it too much to ask that presidential debates include some such argument, at least occasionally? Yes, I’m afraid that was a rhetorical question.

Published in the 2012-11-09 issue: View Contents

George Scialabba is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His selected essays, Only a Voice, will be published in 2023 by Verso.

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