'Why we debase ourselves with money?'
By Kwaak Je-yup
Michael Sandel, Harvard professor, philosopher and author of international bestseller “Justice” provides one of the most convincing arguments against assigning economic value to every facet of life in his latest book.
In “What Money Can’t Buy,” released simultaneously in the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea, Sandel outlines in 200 pages, how our lives have become subject to market-driven thinking.
He challenges readers to think about how human motivation is shaped by society’s values and processes, using examples that range from the names of stadiums and the amount of time we spend standing in line to the rights of childbirth and even the circumstances of death.
Some suspected and systemic goings-on in society, such as how some students from wealthy families gain entrance to colleges helped by sizable donations and how carbon emissions cost 13 euros per ton in the European Union are examined. But some of his newer findings — including the opportunity to shoot an endangered animal for $150,000 — will stir readers to ask what money shouldn’t buy.
Sandel refrains from imposing normative ideals of his own and holds back from drawing a line between the market and civic domains himself. His objective is to get the public engaged in discussion. (Judging from the book, he personally stands for stopping unfettered market forces touching all aspects of life but maintains a mild, objective tone.)
Should people be allowed to gamble on how quickly people with terminal illnesses will die? They already do in the insurance industry. Should lobbyists be able to hire the homeless to line up for them in front of Capitol Hill, crowding out others who cannot afford to? There are companies to arrange such activities. Should a first-come-first-serve ticket to the free papal mass at Yankee Stadium be sold for hundreds of dollars? It was, but outraged Vatican officials banned the practice.
Objections to such rampant commercialism, according to Sandel, come under two categories: unfairness and corruption. First, the terminally ill, the homeless, and most Catholics don’t have the luxury of choosing to buy or sell such services. They are advantages only available to the rich, a common argument of the left.
But corruption, where Sandel’s analyses focus most, is a more troublesome topic. It “reduces” a person’s life, their right to participate in democracy and religious events into commercial opportunities, something they are not. They deserve to be more than that, Sandel says.
“Most of our political debates today are conducted in these terms — between those who favor unfettered markets and those who maintain that market choices are free only when they’re made on a level playing field and only when the basic terms of social cooperation are fair.
“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 question the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.”
Not everyone would agree. But on one point, love, Sandel seems invincible.
“Our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice. Think of a loving couple. If, over a lifetime, they asked little of one another, in hopes of hoarding their love, how well would they fare? Wouldn’t their love deepen rather than diminish the more they called upon it? Would they do better to treat one another in more calculating fashion, to conserve their love for the times they really needed it?”