Michael Sandel has written a long, thoughtful, but frustrating article that raises questions about the intrusion of markets and market values into new domains. He begins with a long list of problematic goods and services that can now be bought and sold, then explains why we might worry about such things being sell-able. He has some things to say about deregulation and how the market has given free rein to greed. He worries too about inequality and its impact upon consumption, so that the more we do with markets the more inequality "matters."
The meat of his argument, however, is about "corruption." By corruption he means not bribery or nepotism, but rather the more "religious" cluster of debasement/pollution/impurity:
Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship.
Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.
We don’t allow children to be bought and sold, no matter how difficult the process of adoption can be or how willing impatient prospective parents might be. Even if the prospective buyers would treat the child responsibly, we worry that a market in children would express and promote the wrong way of valuing them. Children are properly regarded not as consumer goods but as beings worthy of love and care. Or consider the rights and obligations of citizenship. If you are called to jury duty, you can’t hire a substitute to take your place. Nor do we allow citizens to sell their votes, even though others might be eager to buy them. Why not? Because we believe that civic duties are not private property but public responsibilities. To outsource them is to demean them, to value them in the wrong way.
This seems fair - not that many people believe the market should control everything, and I don't think anyone believes children should be sold to the highest bidder. However, Sandel's arguments, and especially his examples of inappropriate goods, are not persuasive (to me at any rate).
Sandel says "Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged." But this is not exactly the same thing as saying markets have no values, only that those values emerge from those of its participants. A wag might say, Sandel's problem is that everyone "decides for him- or herself" instead of letting the Wise Sandel and people like him decide. The distinction is not between values and no values, but rather between "bottom-up" values and values chosen "top-down" through public discourse and deliberation. The latter are not unproblematic either; top-down values have often reflected convenient hypocrisies as well, and green being the "the only color that counts" might be rather a blessing to an untouchable - he's going to have less money than his oppressors, but at least his money counts the same as theirs.
Then of course there's liberty and autonomy. The market loves that stuff, and whilst it's not unequivocally a good, it's not really amoral in any sense. If Sandel wants to come between "consensual acts of capitalism between adults" he needs to provide argumentation - externalities of all sorts count as reasons, as do public goods of various sorts, but virtue talk does so much less obviously. Indeed, Sandel seems at times to ascribe to Money an almost mystical quality, almost as if it were a fundamental, and corrosive, substance by itself, instead of seeing it as grease for exchange. Doing so no doubt does a lot to ping queasiness intuitions, and it allows him to essentially get through an entire article without once mentioning the l-word, but it's not really kosher. What he's actually arguing, after all, is that society as a whole should supersede individual peoples' pairwise judgments about items they might prefer to swap, and it doesn't seem like a mere debate between "morality" and "amorality" to say that "public deliberation" should make that choice paternalistically for the sake of peoples' souls. It's worse than that, since Money talk often confuses him in fundamental ways instead of just distracting the reader. Take two initial examples of morally problematic transactions:
The right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: $10.50. The European Union runs a carbon-dioxide-emissions market that enables companies to buy and sell the right to pollute.
How exactly does Sandel want to reduce carbon once both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade are ruled out? Why can't money be part of a scheme to ration carbon? It seems like that's exactly the sort of thing money does really well, encoding information about people's desires and relative preferences. More emotionalism too, with incendiary "right to pollute" talk. Does a gas tax also confer a "right" to pollute? Would he say that taxes on tobacco or alcohol or gambling confer the "right" to "sin"? Even pretty ordinary taxes can be given emotive labels like this: a property tax is really about the government "extorting" money from people just to stay on their own land. One wonders if any taxes are permitted at all, if they are to be seen as establishing "rights" in this manner. Shall Sandel follow a nominally communitarian stance all the way to anarchism?
Serve as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company: $7,500. The pay can be higher or lower, depending on the invasiveness of the procedure used to test the drug’s effect and the discomfort involved.
But what is the solution? Stopping human trials entirely before releasing potentially harmful medications into the market? Really? Having people undergo potentially risky procedures that may leave them worse off, while offering them nothing to make it worth their while? But why on earth would they volunteer under those conditions? More to the point, why shouldn't these people - in Viagra trials say - make money against Pfizer's future earnings from the drug? Why should Pfizer and its shareholders get all the money while facing none of the risk? Indeed, what exactly is the problem here? Sandel's objection to this practice basically amounts to the view that fixing an externality is wrong. For that matter, does Sandel think it is ever okay for people doing dangerous or disagreeable jobs to earn more money than those doing jobs with similar skill-sets but which are safe/more pleasant? If garbagemen earn more than laundrymen, and college professors earn less than employees at Microsoft, doesn't this put a price (oh my) on experiencing risk, danger or unpleasantness? This is unmitigated tenderheartedness at its worst.
Sandel also fails to expose his own virtues to scrutiny. Take for example his discussion about selling/renting the body:
The services of an Indian surrogate mother: $8,000. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States.
In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?”
Well, why not exactly? Let's re-assess what's going on here more sympathetically. An American woman A desperately wants a biological child, but is unable to bear it in her (often for medical reasons, but let us imagine it's for reasons of convenience). An Indian woman B is willing to help A out. She doesn't want to suffer - be made worse off - for having done A a good turn. She's poor, and wants to be compensated for her trouble, which should certainly be no trouble for A, who has much more money than she does. B's happy to give A a child, and is happy to take $8000 for nine months of pregnancy, with which money she can make her life (and that of her own children) better.
Sandel says this is exploitative, or demeans the human soul or something, and must be stopped, but I think Sandel needs to grapple more sincerely with the ethics of exploitation. Without Sandel, A and B engage in something that makes them both better off, but Sandel can't sleep at night. With Sandel, A has no child to spend her money on and B has no money for her children, but Sandel feels more confident that the human spirit is unsullied. It seems to me merely decent to say, unless Sandel has better options for A and B, options which they'd rather take than the one they have settled upon, Sandel should just take some Ambien for his insomnia. Note that I'm not arguing that the market in surrogacy cannot be regulated, whether for safety or to give B a fairer price for her troubles. Indeed, since the desire for biological children is great, the market for surrogacy is probably relatively price insensitive, and there are going to be plenty of people who can't pay 24k for a pregnancy who'd happily pay B 12k or 15k. But it is considerations like human welfare and happiness that enter primarily, not Sandel's concern in Unsullied Man.
I am glad our society has a vigorous debate on markets, and that the public discourse has not been "emptied" of moral argument. But I am also happy the debate on markets focuses on issues like regulation, inequality, risk and compensation, not to mention the fundamental question of utility-enhancing measures that are not Pareto optimal. I am however happier on the whole to not have a much-expanded "public discourse" about Sandel-style morality - I don't want nags like him deciding to impose his "virtues" upon me.