Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Sandel: What Money Can’t Buy

Michael Sandel (2012) What Money Can’t Buy, The Moral Limits of Markets Allen Lane, London; 256 pp.; ISBN 978-0-141-96980-0

Mention the words ‘ethics’ or ‘morals’ to an economist or politician and you will be met with that blank, uncomprehending stare that was once the sole preserve of the village idiot. Broad areas of social life since the 1980s have been colonised by commerce and advertising, actively encouraged by governments and their business allies. Politicians and economists swear blind that all this has nothing to do with values or morals – it’s simply about improved efficiency and freedom of choice. The great virtue of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy is to show us that such claims are utter codswallop.

Sandel catalogues the invasion of money culture into ever expanding areas of our daily lives: health care, social services, the use of public space and amenities, insurance, education, criminal justice, environmental pollution and sport, just to name a few. We have allowed a money value to be put on just about everything, and in the process have indicated that all these things are up for sale to the highest bidder.

Sandel is not opposed to the market economy, but he makes the point that a market economy is not the same as a market society. The flood of commercial thinking into areas of life that a few decades ago had no commercial value at all changes our understanding of these things and shapes our values about what can be bought and sold. Paying children to read books, as is done in many cities in the US, might appear to be a good thing if it encourages reading, but at the same time it changes our view of reading from being a source of pleasure to being a profitable chore. And when the money stops, where is the motivation to keep going?

The book sets out two major objections to money culture. The first is that it promotes inequality. Paying extra to jump queues, to get quicker or better medical services, or have our call to the local gas board answered earlier, means that those who get the best service are those most able to pay, not those who need the service most urgently. Wealthy people increasingly pay extra to sit apart from others in public transport, in sports stadiums and at public events, reducing the democratic nature of public spaces and the level of social interaction between classes. We are becoming more unequal not just in our access to goods and services, but also in our sense of being a community.

This is neatly expounded by Sandel in his discussion of fines versus fees. Fees are something that everyone pays for specific services. A fine is a punishment for transgressing a law. But the rich – individuals and companies – often regard fines as fees allowing them to behave badly. Dump toxic waste into a public waterway? Cause criminal damage in a drunken spree? The rich just pay a fine which is small change to them and go on their merry way. Finland has addressed this by making fines proportional to income, but politicians in almost every other country continue to bleat and moan that this would be too difficult for them.

The second main objection to money culture is that it corrupts our social life, particularly in terms of degrading the status of public goods and services. The re-naming of parks and sports stadiums to reflect sponsorship, the exclusive consumption of sponsors’ goods in public spaces, commercial labels on UK police cars, paying for a spot in the line to sit and watch a session of Congress in the US, paying people to have tattoos of products placed on their foreheads – such things degrade us both individually and as a society. We are cheapened by the price tag.

Sandel’s views are consistent with the longer term analysis of David Graeber, who noted that in historical cycles where money use and money values dominate, social inequality increases whereas the value placed on human life and the level of trust between individuals both decrease.

There is a third objection in this book, though it is given less prominence. This is that increasing commercialisation reduces our freedom of choice. Sandel notes that on some beaches in the US, Coca Cola has the exclusive right to provide drinks, so consumers have choice taken away from them. The recent London Olympics was a prime example of this, where a small number of sponsors forbade people to exercise choice in products and even prevented businesses all over the country from using words that might be vaguely associated with the games. The Olympics was one of the earliest institutions to prostitute itself in this way, but many others have followed suit.

There are two related issues that are not well addressed in this book. The first is that commercialisation often leads to greater economic inefficiency. This is not just because it limits choice, but also because it allows market problems to remain unresolved. Paying to jump to the head of the queue – at an airport, in a call to the bank, or at a clinic – means that the queuing system is not working efficiently. Instead of fixing it, payments for favoured treatment just perpetuate the problem and allow it to be ignored. Economic efficiency gets worse, not better.

The other issue is that of ugliness. Many people will complain about graffiti, but then sit at home and watch a cable TV channel in which the screen is littered with advertisements, logos and redundant information, often obscuring what you are trying to watch. People complain about billboards and placards on the streets, but do so while wearing clothes that carry the names and logos of companies and sponsors. Are cable stations and companies paying us for the privilege of helping them and degrading ourselves in this way? Of course not: we pay them to be abused. Advertisements appear on pieces of fruit, stamped into sand on the beach, all over public transport and schools, and in public parks. Money culture has made our environment cluttered and ugly. Local governments will say that this is the only way they can afford to maintain public spaces and services, which means the problem of insufficient public funding is not being addressed. Instead, we allow lazy and unimaginative public officials to treat the symptom by commercial littering rather than fix the problem.

Most people will be surprised, and many people appalled, at the range and number of examples that Sandel cites in this book. The weakness in his presentation is that the key arguments against money culture are inserted here and there in the text more as comments on the examples rather than being a cohesive argument about the nature of modern society. His criticisms could have been much stronger with a better developed structure, but there is still plenty for the thoughtful reader to ponder. The question is: what can we do to turn the tide? Sandel offers no advice on this other than a plea to re-inject morals and ethics into public debate. It’s a start, but given the squalid state of post-1980s politics we have an awfully long way to go.

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