It’s been a couple of weeks since I last finished a chapter in Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy. I recently completed chapter 3 a couple of nights ago and there were some intriguing things to think about. Let’s get right to it!
For me, there were two important parts to the chapter. The first is the explanation of the two objections to markets. Prof. Sandel explains that the two kinds of objections to markets are fairness and inequality:
The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest… [The corruption objection] points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold. [Emphasis added]
A few pages later, Prof. Sandel explains further what he means:
The fairness and corruption objections differ in their implications for markets: The fairness argument does not object to marketizing certain goods on the grounds that they are precious or sacred or priceless; it objects to buying and selling goods against a background of inequality severe enough to create unfair bargaining conditions… The corruption argument focuses on the character of the goods themselves and the norms that should govern them. So it cannot be met simply by establishing fair bargaining conditions. [Emphasis added]
Reading this was a bit tough to swallow. It seemed unlikely that all arguments against markets could be filtered into one of two categories. Then, I thought about his course that I watched last year, “Justice,” and how many of the students seemed to want to argue for nuance around the edges. While there was still nuance, the arguments they put forth still, for the most part, seemed to fall into a way of thinking that had already been espoused by a philosopher.
Later in the chapter, Prof. Sandel discusses three cases where the marketization of a good crowds out nonmarket norms. That was a bit wordy. Prof. Sandel shares cases where adding a market-like aspect (where there previously wasn’t), changed the way people interacted with the good. One of these cases I found particularly surprising (at least at first).
The case comes from Switzerland in the early 1990s. The country was looking for a place to store its nuclear waste. Of course, no town really wanted to house the nuclear waste, but there was a small village that was picked. Some economists surveyed the village to see if they’d accept it, if the Swiss parliament decided that it was the place to put the waste. Fifty-one percent of residents said they’d accept it. The economists then asked another question. If the parliament also paid each resident, would you then accept it? The idea being that, money is the king incentive for everyone, so adding money to this equation should only get more people accepting of the waste, right? Wrong. By adding the monetary sweetener, support collapsed from 51% to 25%! Even when they added more money, that didn’t seem to affect the outcome. Why?
For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit — a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere. If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden. Against the background of this civic commitment, the offer of cash to residents of the village felt like a bribe, an effort to buy their vote.
This seemed like an incredible story with an important lesson — money isn’t always the solution. There were two other examples, but none that were as powerful for me as this one.
The second important part of this chapter is the explanation of the “two tenets of market faith”:
The first is that commercializing an activity doesn’t change it. On this assumption, money never corrupts, and market relations never crowd out nonmarket norms… The second tenet of market faith is that ethical behavior is a commodity that needs to be economized. The idea is this: we should not rely too heavily on altruism, generosity, solidarity, or civic duty, because these moral sentiments are scarce resources that are depleted with use. [Emphasis added]
Prof. Sandel already showed earlier in the chapter that money can crowd out nonmarket norms. After this above quoted section, he goes on to show that things like altruism and generosity are not scarce resources and that they are not depleted with use. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Fields like positive psychology have done research on these areas and shown that there’s almost a multiplier effect with things like altruism and generosity.
If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:
- Introduction: Everything and Nothing
- Chapter 1: When is it OK to Jump the Line?
- Chapter 2: Fines vs. Fees