Michael Sandel offers compelling examples of the corrosive effects of commodification. There is, however, another side to the story.
In "What Money Can't Buy," Professor Michael Sandel argues that the United States has always had a market economy, but that more recently it has started to become a market society, where market values seep into many new areas of life, often with negative consequences. Discussing his thesis Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival*, he raised the example of education experiments that pay disadvantaged students for every book that they read, or compensate them with money every time they receive an A or a B on their report cards.
Is this a good idea or a bad one?
He put that question to the audience.
Now he requests cash.
Under-using markets can be as imprudent as their over-use.
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That isn't to say that such experiments aren't sometimes fraught.
Says John Lanchester:
But dead kidney patients are impossible to "change back" too. Let us think through the consequences of using markets more explicitly and rigorously - but as we engage in the democratic debates on these matters that Sandel wisely counsels, let us carefully weigh the costs of not using markets too.
There's one example in particular that comes close to summing up the entire argument of What Money Can't Buy. It concerns an Israeli daycare centre, which responded to a problem with parents turning up late to collect their children by introducing fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.
The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing was based on non-monetary values, and was a stronger force than mere cash. The daycare centre went back to the old system, but parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Once the old "norm" of turning up on time had been marketised, it was impossible to change back.