Should you be able to buy and sell babies? Should you be able to buy and sell votes?
These are the sort of questions posed in the excellent ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits to Markets’ by Michael Sandel. His basic premise is that we’ve moved from a market economy to a market society. That the Rules of Economics rule.
He covers lots of themes within the book raised by this basic premise – like the coercive and corruptive nature of money and the issue of democracy. One area is the use of incentives. Economics say that incentives are a good thing because if you put a price on something then it encourages people to act in the ways you want. So, paying children to read a book, or the offer of money to work hard to get a high grade.
What this does, which he eloquently points out is that by incentivising something, you run the risk of ‘crowding out’ the social norm that currently exists, to the detriment of society.
So, in America, like here in the UK, people donate blood. They did this because they saw it as their civic duty. It was then realised you could make money buying and selling blood. So, you can now either get paid to give blood (typically done by poor people who are being coerced into doing so because they have little money) or donate blood. What’s happened is that fewer people donate blood. As he says “Commercialisation and profit in blood has been driving out the voluntary donor” and that “once people begin to view blood as a commodity that is routinely bought and sold, they are less likely to feel a moral responsibility to donate it”. Further, “it is likely that a decline in the spirit of altruism on one sphere of human activities will be accompanied by similar changes in attitudes, motives and relationships in other spheres”.
That last statement sounds like a leap, but he’s got 203 pages of why that may well be true.
Another example is nuclear waste in Switzerland. The government did their research and found out that the most appropriate place to build the waste site was near the small mountain village of Wolfenschiessen (pop. 2,100). 51% of residents said that they would accept it. The economists added a sweetner to try and get the % up. They offered money of an annual monetary payment. The result? The financial incentive cut the rate of acceptance in half to 25%. Why? In the world of economics, increasing the incentive should have increased demand. So, why did it go down? “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 this backdrop of civic commitment, the offer of case felt like a bribe – an effort to buy their vote.”
Sandel uses example after example to drive home the point that we should examine the line where economic thinking is impacting on our sense of civic duty and the ideals of democracy: paying to jump the queue, executive boxes at sports stadiums, paying to be late to pick up your kids, bribes to lose weight, carbon offset, paying to kill endangered species, life insurance, corporate naming rights in sports stadiums, advertising in schools etc. etc.
We decided that buying and selling people (slavery) was morally incorrect, yet there seems to be little to no public debate about what else should or shouldn’t be bought or sold. So, you may well be able to go into a store soon and say “I’d like to buy two children” although Madonna and Branjelina may have already passed that line.
A very timely book.