Something curious happened when I tried to potty train my two-year-old recently. To begin with, he was very keen on the idea. I’d read that the trick was to reward him with a chocolate button every time he used the potty, and for the first day or two it went like a breeze - until he cottoned on that the buttons were basically a bribe, and began to smell a rat. By day three he refused point-blank to go anywhere near the potty, and invoking the chocolate button prize only seemed to make him all the more implacable. Even to a toddler’s mind, the logic of the transaction was evidently clear — if he had to be bribed, then the potty couldn’t be a good idea — and within a week he had grown so suspicious and upset that we had to abandon the whole enterprise.
It’s a pity I hadn’t read What Money Can’t Buy before embarking, because the folly of the chocolate button policy lies at the heart of Michael Sandel’s new book. “We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold,” the Harvard philosopher writes. “We have drifted from having a market economy, to being a market society,” in which the solution to all manner of social and civic challenges is not a moral debate but the law of the market, on the assumption that cash incentives are always the appropriate mechanism by which good choices are made. Every application of human activity is priced and commodified, and all value judgments are replaced by the simple question: “How much?”
Sandel leads us through a dizzying array of examples, from schools paying children to read — US$2 a book in Dallas — to commuters buying the right to drive solo in car pool lanes (US$10 in many US cities), to lobbyists in Washington paying line-standers to hold their place in the queue for Congressional hearings; in effect, queue-jumping members of the public. Drug addicts in North Carolina can be paid US$300 to be sterilized, immigrants can buy a green card for US$500,000, best man’s speeches are for sale on the Internet, and even body parts are openly traded in a financial market for kidneys, blood and surrogate wombs. Even the space on your forehead can be up for sale. Air New Zealand has paid people to shave their heads and walk around wearing temporary tattoos advertising the airline.
According to the logic of the market, the matter of whether these transactions are right or wrong is literally meaningless. They simply represent efficient arrangements, incentivizing desirable behavior and “improving social utility by making underpriced goods available to those most willing to pay for them”. To Sandel, however, the two important questions we should be asking in every instance are: Is it fair to buy and sell this activity or product? And does doing so degrade it? Almost invariably, his answers are no, and yes.
Sandel, 59, has been teaching political philosophy at Harvard for more than 30 years, and is often described as a rock star professor, such is the excitement his lectures command. In person there is nothing terribly rock star about him; he grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Minneapolis, studied for his doctorate at Balliol college in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and has been married for decades to a social scientist with whom he has two adult sons. His career, on the other hand, is stratospheric.
Sandel’s justice course is said to be the single most popular university class on the planet, taken by more than 15,000 students to date and televised for a worldwide audience that runs into millions. His 2009 book Justice, based upon the course, became a global bestseller, sparking a craze for moral philosophy in Japan and earning him the accolade “most influential foreign figure” from China Newsweek. If you heard a series of his lectures broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the spring you would have glimpsed a flavor of his wonderfully discursive approach to lecturing, which is not unlike an Oxbridge tutorial, only conducted with an auditorium full of students, whom he invites to think aloud.