Should everything be up for sale?

Posted: 25 March 2012 in Uncategorized
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Andreas Gursky, “99 Cent” (1999)

In discussing markets with my students, I often invite them to engage in the following thought experiment: “Suppose that body parts—livers, hearts, legs, arms, etc.—are bought and sold on markets.” Their usual response is that body parts shouldn’t be available on markets. “But why draw the line there? Why prohibit the buying and selling of body parts but allow markets for food—when people are dying of hunger and malnutrition—and shelter—when so many are homeless—and healthcare—when so many suffer from poor health or disease?” And then, of course, I remind them that body parts are for sale, both legally and illegally, from surrogate mothers and human guinea pigs in drug-safety trials to blood, kidneys, and plastinates.

Michael Sandel raises similar questions in arguing that, in recent decades, we’ve made the transition from a market economy to a market society. And he has his own favorite examples, such as the following:

A prison-cell upgrade: $90 a night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to disturb them.

The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $250,000. South Africa has begun letting some ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species.

Your doctor’s cellphone number: $1,500 and up per year. A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000.

Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15–$20 an hour. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.

If you are a second-grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2. To encourage reading, schools pay kids for each book they read.

His view is that, while mainstream economists often assume that “markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged,” market values often “crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.”

I think he’s right: commodification does change the nature of goods and services—the way we think about them and what we do with them. Markets do leave their mark.

The only problem with Sandel’s moralistic approach to markets (whereby “some of the good things in life are degraded if turned into commodities”) is that he treats markets in an abstract fashion, as if there were a simple choice between markets and non-markets. What he doesn’t want to consider is the existence of different kinds of markets: slave markets, capitalist markets, communist markets, and so on. In other words, the different consequences of markets depend, at least in part, on how the commodities are produced.

And while he’s quite willing to argue that “slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction,” he never raises a question about the buying and selling of labor power. In other words, he presumes we all know that human chattel, the buying and selling of human beings, is morally wrong but he doesn’t touch on a key ingredient of market society: the fact that large numbers of human beings are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work for a wage.

If he did, he’d have to go back in time, before the most recent period of market triumphalism, and discuss the history of the so-called primitive accumulation, when the conditions of market society were first produced.

Sandel is worried that we are currently “moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale.” What he seems not to understand is that the making of market society cannot be separated from the birth and development of capitalism.

  1. […] that makes me happy I never had the misfortune of encountering such a prof in college: “And while he’s quite willing to argue that “slavery was appalling because it treated human being….” As a descendant of slaves, I find any comparison of slavery with working for a wage to be […]

  2. Magpie says:

    From last year:

    “Students could pay off debts by donating kidneys, says academic”.

    So, first they turn these kids into debtors, then they create the means they could pay the debt.

  3. […] the new book by “rock star professor” Michael Sandel, whose views I have engaged here. Putting a price on a flat-screen TV or a toaster is, he says, quite sensible. “But how to […]

  4. […] Sandel, market morality is based on the idea that “some of the good things in life are degraded if […]

  5. […] Sandel, market morality is based on the idea that “some of the good things in life are degraded if […]

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