Why it’s all about the money

Markets corrupt by making everything in society a commodity and the risks are enormous, finds Tom O’Connor

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Michael Sandel,

Allen Lane, €24.90

Michael Sandel’s book powerfully articulates what the majority of people across the globe know is happening: markets and finance are taking over everything; positive moral values that people have held dearly are under threat in the process.

The trading in everything from life insurance policies on Aids victims to advertising space on people’s foreheads is corroding and debasing public morality and humanity itself.

Sandel is no high-minded crank, attractive to only a small minority. His lectures in Harvard are the most popular ever recorded and are now watched by millions of TV users in the US and on the internet.

His preceding book entitled Justice was a New York Times bestseller and his work is now translated in to 15 languages. Clearly, Michael Sandel is highlighting something of huge public importance.

While the book is entitled What Money Can’t Buy, the first chapter shockingly illustrates the power and reach of money. It can buy a prison cell upgrade in Santa Ana, California for $82 per night; nine months in the life of an Indian surrogate mother for $6,250 or the right to shoot and kill an endangered black rhino for $150,000.

Like many others, Sandel is curious why government and society still have boundless faith in markets even after the global financial collapse that has brought the sharpest recession in world history.

The message is that the reach of markets has become institutionalised and embedded in ‘non-market’ forms. Traditionally, policing was in predominantly a non-market area, but now in the US and UK, the number of private security guards is over twice the number of police officers. Similarly, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The rise of markets has made “everything for sale”. Central to Sandel’s thesis are two objections to this development: firstly, in terms of fairness, life will be far more difficult or even dire for those who can’t afford essentials such as healthcare, food, a decent home or an education.

Secondly, markets corrupt, by making everything subject to trade and ‘crowds out’ values which are good. These include altruism or bonds of decency which have become norms over thousands of years.

Sandel gives thoroughly researched examples of this process: insurance companies lobbied the US government in the 1990s to relax insurance laws. As a result, large companies were allowed to purchase life insurance on their employees, even though the companies did not have an ‘insurable interest’ in the worker.

This became the (corporate owned life insurance) industry. Most workers did not even know their employers had insured them and they did not give consent. In many cases, companies such as Nestle, Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Walmart and others, received hundreds of thousands of dollars on the death of employees.

After the 9/11 attacks in the US, it was the big companies who were first to be paid. By 2008, US banks held €122bn on the lives of their employees.

Sandel believes that practices such as these corrode human and moral values and are bad for society.

Sandel demolishes the standard account within the economics discipline, popularised by Nobel Prize Winner Ken Arrow, that commercialising any activity doesn’t change or debase it: Titmuss’s study found that where blood was donated voluntarily in the UK, that the supply of it and the quality was higher than in the US. Interestingly contaminated blood from the US caused the scandal of state infected hepatitis C in Ireland previously.

Titmuss’s work verifies Sandel’s two-fold theory: firstly, taking blood from the poorest on Skid Row was deeply exploitative (his fairness argument); secondly, if blood was paid-for, people viewed it as a commodity which stripped them of their ‘moral responsibility’ to donate it (his corruption argument). Consequently, trading in blood corrupted the altruistic motivation to donate blood. This demonstrates the corrupting influence of markets by ‘crowding out’ selfless and socially beneficial behaviour.

* Tom O’Connor is a CIT lecturer in economics and public policy


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