Is There Anything You Can’t Buy in America? Should There Be?


If you’ve got the money, there’s hardly anything you can’t buy in America. You can purchase a cushy upgrade to your prison cell, an internship at a famous magazine, or a fast-track through airport security. You can even buy someone’s virginity in an online auction.

Sky’s the limit. Oh, wait, it’s not: You can purchase naming rights to stars, and no doubt we will soon have the David H. Koch Galaxy winking at us from outer space.

What’s the biggie? says the free marketeer. It’s up to the market to “decide” what can be bought and sold, and we’re all free to make up our own minds about participating or not. The market is our liberation, say the advocates, unshackling us from arbitrary restraints and some other guy’s moral hangups.

But hang on a second. Where exactly are we headed with this? Should I really be able to buy an organ? A womb? A sterilization program for crack addicts? What’s the downside of moving toward a society where everything’s for sale?

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had much serious public discussion about what a market-based mentality costs us. One Harvard philosopher thinks it has been far too long.

On Wednesday, the Institute for New Economic Thinking and the Union Theological Seminary hosted a discussion featuring Michael Sandel, a man who likes to dive headlong into a topic many economists will avoid even dipping a toe: the moral implications of a price tag-driven society. Along with INET president Rob Johnson and Union president Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, Sandel spoke about ideas from his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Consider the Walrus

Sandel kicked off the discussion with a case involving our bewhiskered friend, the walrus.

In Canada’s Arctic region, the ancient practice of walrus hunting had so depleted the population that a hunting ban was enacted in 1928. The ban allowed a small exception for the Inuit, an aboriginal group of subsistence hunters, who were given a quota of walruses they could kill each year. In the 1990s, the Inuit asked the Canadian government to allow them to sell the right to kill some of their walrus quota to big-game hunters. The Inuit would take the hunters by boat to the spots where the walruses loll about and let them shoot away. The Inuit argued that this practice would create much-needed jobs and bring in thousands of dollars for their people, who would get to keep the meat and blubber, just as they had always done.

What do you think? Should the Inuit be granted this right or not? Arguments on both sides of the question poured forth in a lively discussion. Some said it was not fair for an outsider to decide, in a paternalistic way, what the Inuit should do with their walrus kill-quota. Others argued that there was something morally repugnant about the practice: the walruses, after all, did not give chase to the hunters, but sat on their ice floes like so many beanbag chairs. Some wondered if the choice of an economically distressed people to earn money in such a way could really be considered a free choice. Were the Inuit coerced by circumstance? Who should decide? What values were at stake?

Sandel is concerned that the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to just televisions and cars, but increasingly governs our entire lives. He points out that in a society where everything is for sale, things get much harder for those who have fewer resources, and that markets may “crowd out” values that are worth caring about, like loyalty and duty. If we set up a society where people act only out of economic self-interest, then our “muscles” for other concerns will tend to atrophy. Sandel pointed to the emptiness of our public discourse as a sign that this is happening.

For a long time, economists have tried to pretend that their field is value-neutral. Baloney, says Sandel, and it’s high time economists reconnected their work to moral and political philosophy. He reminded us that economics actually started out as a branch of moral philosophy, and that Adam Smith himself would never have advocated focusing on economic questions in the absence of moral considerations. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way economics became untethered from the humanities, and the result has been monstrous. (Ask a business school student which major she holds in lowest regard: the answer will either be English or philosophy.)

Members of the audience called upon liberals and progressives to stop shying away from questions of values and morality, and that is a good thing. One member accused postmodernists of blighting the public conversation of rights and morals, presumably through their emphasis on relativism.

I hear that a lot. As someone who studied in an English department in the 1990s, I can certainly acknowledge the excesses of postmodernism. But the movement also forced us to consider the multiplicity of viewpoints when considering moral questions, and to be attuned to how the dominant notion of what is good and right can silence the marginalized perspective. In the case of the Inuit and the walrus, a postmodernist might caution a room full of affluent white humans against making quick judgments about what is right for aboriginal people or large blubbery mammals.

Certainly, we don’t want such considerations to constrain us from having the conversation. We want them to refine our perceptions and to help us avoid the simplistic stances of the Right, which, admittedly, do better in sound-bytes.

The real foe of progressive and liberal morality is not Jacques Derrida but Ayn Rand (and her acolyte Alan Greenspan), whose celebration of self-interest as the desirable motivator of human behavior is among the most repugnant ideas ever to attain widespread acceptance in America, giving Calvinist predestination a run for its money.

The notion of self-interest uber alles has permitted the growth of societal ills like economic inequality and a two-tiered justice system that is eroding confidence in our democratic institutions. Instead of liberating us, markets are increasingly dominating us in ways that threaten our health and security. Just ask anyone other than a rich person who has ever had the bad luck to get sick in America.

Michael Sandel is right to help get a debate about morals and markets underway. Americans have increasingly looked to markets to solve our problems and enhance our lives. Now we have to deal with the monsters they have created.

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