What if money can’t buy everything?


I recently discovered a book thanks to this month’s Books, an excellent French review, which dedicated its cover and several articles to the question, “can money buy everything?” The review places at the forefront the work of Michael J. Sandel published in 2012, entitled What Money Can’t Buy: The moral limits of markets. Author Michael J. Sandel, who is also a philosophy professor at Harvard, has published several books on justice, ethics and democracy including Liberalism and the limits of justice. His class on justice is extremely popular and was one of the first Harvard courses to be offered on the Internet and public television. In his book filled with rich examples and arguments, Sandel demonstrates how acquired goods can become corrupt or degraded by money, and supports the idea that we must defend the integrity of common goods against the monetization of the world. This ethical and political issue first requires that we become conscious of the limits of commodification.


“Money doesn’t stink. All it does is open up the way to making exchanges; it’s a liberating medium for connecting one set of preferences to another. But doesn’t money taint the goods it is exchanged for, when those goods have not normally been distributed in the marketplace?” This is the central theme Michael J. Sander explores in his book, which covers a multitude of examples in all different spheres of life, from selling our bodies to selling autographs, to paying people to queue for you at a free event, or selling prison-cell upgrades for nicer accommodation… What is challenged in this book is the moral judgment that we place on transactions. Selling sexual services, for example, is tied to the fact that “we think that the selling of sex degrades the meaning of ordinary unmonetized intimacy between two people as the consummation of their love.” Another example that comes from the historical practice of “the traffic of indulgences” is: if I pay someone else to apologize for me, does the monetary transaction not burden the sincerity of the apology? Does an autograph I bought from a seller on E-bay have the same value as if I had obtained it myself? Is it okay that a company like LineStanding.com pays people to queue for you in order to have priority access to free congressional hearings? Can we accept that “Project Prevention” pays drug-addicted prostitutes 300 dollars to be sterilized, in order to not have children who will be at risk? Sandel’s sentiment is that in recent years money has meddled into domains where it has no place. But not everyone is against this phenomenon. Numerous economists believe that financial incentives are useful in order to increase the number of options available to us. How can we decide? The video below shows a very interesting analysis to the following case: is it good or bad to give children money to encourage them to read?

The involvement of money in all domains, according to Sandel, leads us to question three issues: the first is constraint (“Are we really free when facing an ‘indecent’ financial proposition?”), the second is injustice (“In a society where everything is for sale, life is even more difficult for the poor”), and the last is a change of nature, or at least a change in the pleasure we get from experiences. This last argument is very clear when looking at prostitution. Other examples are perhaps less obvious. If we use the example from the video above, we understand that it is a good thing for a child to read. But if he is a paid 2 dollars by an organization for every book he reads, it is still a good thing, only it is slightly different. So even if a child is still reading, is it the same kind of experience if he reads purely out of pleasure? The answer is subjective, inevitably linked to each person’s conception of morality. In the 1990’s, the swiss government selected a small mountain village, Wolfenchiessen, as a possible site to stock nuclear waste. The inhabitants of the small town were to be consulted by referendum, but before that, economists conducted an experiment. They asked the population the following question: “Would you accept the waste if the Swiss government decided it would be stocked here?” A small majority responded yes. Afterward, the economists asked, “Would you accept the waste if the Parliament offered each resident in exchange a high indemnity, around 1 month’s salary per year?” From 51%, the “yes” responses dropped to 25%. The inhabitants did not want to be corrupted on this kind of subject. Proof then, that in terms of commodifying the world, the only limit is ethics, individual and shared!


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