Economethics or Can’t Buy Me Love


“The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” — Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Once in a while a book hits a resonant tone within one’s life, enough so that you want to exclaim, “Yes! This is what I’m saying.” Such a book is Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, and the tone he hits is that we live with the assumption that everything has its price and there is nothing that money can’t buy. Examples abound: the Dallas school district that pays second graders $2 for every book they read; the practice of paying Indian surrogate mothers upwards of $6,250 to carry a pregnancy; the right to shoot an endangered black rhino on a game farm for $150,000, and on and on. 


Sandel’s argument, carefully considered and reasoned, is that utilitarian arguments for letting the market dictate the most efficient way to fulfill our wants lead to inequality and corruption. Inequality, because if everything is for sale, those without the means end up suffering even more. And corruption because pricing certain goods in life changes and distorts our perspective on the value of those goods.


If all he had done was to point out such instances, that would be interesting enough: there is apparently no limit to the imagination of people bent on making a buck, no matter the moral cost. But what Sandel has done is to question the assumption that powers the engine of capitalism and that shapes our culture to such an extent that we even subject our relationships with others to a cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, such an analysis is our unthinking default position. You know we’ve succumbed to a virulent ideology when we struggle to feel outrage at the fact that corporations pay to be allowed to continue polluting or that the unflinchingly arrogant can hire someone to do their apologizing for them. By the notions of today’s cultural values that’s known as a ‘win-win’ situation. You have a need and a fistful of cash; I have the answer and a need for your cash. We exchange—and everybody wins.


But in that transaction, so transparently justifiable these days, is a tiny pellet of cynicism about the moral meaning of values. To change the metaphor slightly, we drop our values into a volatile bath of corrosive chemicals that leave them leached and useless. 


“We corrupt a good, an activity, or a social practice,” says Sandel, “whenever we treat it according to a lower norm than is appropriate to it.” Thus an organization based in North Carolina, called Project Prevention, will pay $300 to drug-addicted women to be sterilized. The founder, Barbara Harris, says, “I’ll do anything I have to do to prevent babies from suffering. I don’t believe that anybody has the right to force their addiction on another human being.” 


According to market logic the transaction increases the social utility for all parties: the addict gets $300 for giving up her ability to have children, and the organization has the satisfaction that one more drug-addicted baby will not be born into the world. What’s not to like? 


Sandel points up two objections. The first is the criticism that this constitutes a form of coercion: offering $300 to a drug addict is an offer she can’t refuse and thus she is not acting freely. 


The other objection centers on this as a form of bribery. Public officials who accept bribes demean and degrade their office by applying a lower norm to it than is appropriate. 

Whether or not this deal is coercive, say critics, it is corrupt because both the seller (the addict) and the buyer (Harris) “value the good being sold (the childbearing capacity of the seller) in the wrong way.” Sandel continues: “Harris treats drug-addicted and HIV-positive women as damaged baby-making machines that can be switched off for a fee. Those who accept her offer acquiesce in this degrading view of themselves. This is the moral force of the bribery charge.”


Behind these examples lies the real heart of Sandel’s argument with economists: that their claim they only explain behavior but don’t judge it simply cannot be supported. Whether they like it or not they are entangled in moral decisions constantly. The market is not value-neutral but is shaped and influenced by cultural norms. If that were not the case we’d still be buying and selling slaves, since on a purely utilitarian basis it increases efficiency for both the buyer and seller. But for the slave it is a horrible and undeserved punishment because it deprives that person of the respect and freedom due to human beings. If the utilitarian approach works for the greatest good for the greatest number, then it hits a wall on this one and many others like it.


In considering this I’d like to coin a new word: economethics—the discipline that studies the ethical implications of economic theories. If ours is a market-driven culture, as Sandel and many others claim, then such a study would be essential. It might keep us questioning whether we really want to gauge the worth of actions and relations and people solely by their pecuniary value (from Latin, pecu, which meant ‘flock or herd or cattle). 


But we don’t have to wait for the formal recognition of this field. We can begin the resistance to the reigning ideology by simply practicing the Golden Rule, a form of which has been around in all the major religious faiths since the Axial Age began circa 500 BCE. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Priceless!



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