Money and Morals

Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel published a book in 2012 titled What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Perhaps counterintuitively, Sandel’s pages describe the expanding range of goods and services that money can buy. And he clearly laments how much is degraded by having a price.


Human blood, body parts, and surrogate motherhood can all be bought and sold. A lower-numbered place in line at the airport or amusement park, a place in the car pool lane, or the baseball announcer’s commentary, “This call to the Bull Pen is brought to you by AT&T,” have all been added to the list.


Then there is the practice of selling naming rights for public spaces. Prodded no doubt by limited government finances, sports stadiums were early adopters of the practice. Schools and other public buildings have been named for donors. Donors can also “sponsor” public facilities, such as fire hydrants. In London a police patrol car was painted with the words, “This car sponsored by Harrods.”


Line standing has also become a business. In Washington, D.C. the company advertises as “a leader in the Congressional line standing business.” Lobbyists pay line standers as much as $60 per hour to reserve places in line for the limited seats at a Congressional hearing, potentially leaving less room for interested citizens. Line standing has also been employed in New York for “free” tickets to public Shakespeare performances. Line standers were able to charge as much as $125 to people wanting “free” tickets to see a performance of The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino.

Ad space isn’t only on billboards anymore. Buses make effective mobile billboards. Movies have been advertised on apples and bananas for sale in grocery stores. School books carry ads, and ads can also be found for captive audiences in restrooms and elevators. Owners of private cars can be paid to have their cars wrapped in printed vinyl advertisements. Bail bonds and lawyers advertise prominently in some jail intakes.


Sandel’s examples reach into the realms of politics and international affairs. “At the Kyoto conference on global warming (1997), the United States insisted that any mandatory worldwide emissions standards would have to include a trading scheme, allowing countries to buy and sell the right to pollute.” Sandel argues that allowing polluters to buy their way out of responsibility weakens the moral stigma against polluting. Similarly he objects to the policy of some African countries to sell permits to hunt and kill endangered species such as the black rhino. Placing a value on the animals, the argument goes, gives ranchers an incentive to breed and care for the animals. Thus the tension between the power of markets and commitment to acceptable moral practices moves in favor of money solutions to social, environmental, and ethical questions.


Finally, Sandel comments on unequal distribution of wealth. “The more things money can buy, the fewer occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up to the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be.”

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