Money makes the world go around — should it?

  • Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 12:01 a.m.
'What Money Can't Buy,' by Michael J. Sandel.
'What Money Can't Buy,' by Michael J. Sandel.

“What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” by Michael J. Sandel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012. 245 pp.$16 paperback; available as ebook.

The title of Michael J. Sandel’s latest book really could be “What Money Can Buy” instead of “What Money Can’t Buy,” because his contention is “almost anything.” Would you like to move directly to the head of the line at a Disneyworld attraction? Get on the airplane first? Transfer to a better prison? Have your business name posted on someone’s forehead? These are all available for the right amount of money, and he presents the problems this can cause.


It is Sandel’s position that there has been a major shift in the role of the market in society. A market should function as a tool — an appropriate way to organize productive activity. In a market-driven society as Sandel feels we have now, market value seeps into many inappropriate areas of our lives. Nearly everything is for sale except what the government forbids. We cannot buy or sell children, buy body parts, sell votes or have someone take one’s place on a jury. Beyond that, nearly anything goes. The author wants a discussion of the moral and ethical implications of this.

He gives several reason for his concern. One is the widening gap between people with money and those who have less. One illustration: The well-to-do can hire people to stand in line for them, sometimes for long periods, to get the best seats at concerts, front seats at Congressional hearings or first in line to go to the top of the Empire State building. He wonders what happened to “first come, first served.” He believes that fairness is an important social value and sees money leading to unfairness in social settings.

Another concern is the corrosive effect of putting a monetary value in areas which should be judged by other values. A clear and blatant example of this is slavery, wherein a human being’s value is determined by his or her purchase price. It is Sandel’s contention that this conflict of values can be found in many other diverse situations. He maintains that the right to have children should not be for sale; nevertheless, a North Carolina group offers to pay drug addicted women $300 to be sterilized. Setting a value on procreation seems to him to show the total lack of moral concern about issues.

He feels this same amorality exists when healthy people park in spots reserved for the handicapped. They are rarely caught and if so consider the fine an inexpensive cost of parking where they wish. The fact that they block handicapped people from using the space seems of no concern. Other illustrations of this corrosive effect include college admission to less qualified but wealthy students with the hope that the family will make a significant contribution to the school; companies having special telephone numbers for wealthy customers so they do not have to wait for the “next available representative”; sports arenas and activities named for companies instead of individuals; and ads on police cars, fire hydrants and nature trails.

The book is full of examples in which money changes attitudes. In places where money was offered for blood donations, the voluntary donations decreased. It appeared that offering money changed the process from a well intended contribution to a business deal. He feels it is a mistake to offer money to children for good grades or reading books, as well as paying people to lose weight or stop smoking. His contention is that changes the motivation and when the financial motivation stops so does interest in the activity.

The author has an interesting comment on the difference between fines and fees. A fine is considered punishment, whether for driving above the speed limit, parking in illegal spaces or jumping the turnstile at the subway. Since people are rarely caught for their violations, they can consider the “fines” as simply occasional “fees” for doing what they want. He tells of a child care facility where parents were often late in picking up their children. A penalty charge was set up for those who came late, whereupon parents began coming later. They considered the “late charge” an inexpensive fee for additional child care while they worked later or shopped.

The author at times sounds like an astute but disgruntled and disapproving sideline observer of the issues with few recommendations for change. He does suggest criteria in assessing transactions, particularly fairness to all involved and a lack of any coercion. Beyond this his proposals are rather vague, amorphous ideas for some forum to discuss money and morality. Sandel does, however, draw attention to an interesting social phenomenon in a stimulating and thought provoking manner.

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