What Isn’t For Sale?….. But Maybe Should Be?

Mark Perry
updated | Author's Website
In The Atlantic Magazine article “What Isn’t For Sale?“, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel points to some interesting “markets in everything“: 
  • paying for a prison cell upgrade in California
  • dynamic market-based toll roads for solo drivers in some cities like Minneapolis
  • Indian surrogate mothers who charge one-third the going rate in the U.S.
  • commercial game hunting in South Africa for endangered species like the black rhino ($250,000 fee)
  • concierge doctors charging patients for access to their cell phone number
  • selling advertising space on your forehead
  • paying somebody to stand in line overnight
But the author isn’t exactly celebrating the efficiency or welfare-increasing features of the market economy with these examples, he’s actually questioning whether markets have gone a little bit too far when “everything is up for sale”:
“The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t. 
Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale? 
For two reasons. First, consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence—or the lack of it—matters. If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to afford yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would matter less than they do today. But as money comes to buy more and more, the distribution of income and wealth looms larger. 
The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.
A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong. Thinking through the appropriate place of markets requires that we reason together, in public, about the right way to value the social goods we prize. It would be folly to expect that a more morally robust public discourse, even at its best, would lead to agreement on every contested question. But it would make for a healthier public life. And it would make us more aware of the price we pay for living in a society where everything is up for sale.”
MP: A few comments:
1.  “In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means.” And yet several of the examples provided contradict that statement: those of modest means can improve their lives with access to the markets for surrogate mothers, standing in line overnight and selling advertising space on their foreheads. 
2. “A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us government to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong.” 
It seems like the author is basically advocating greater government control and intervention over markets (us = government), which would necessarily limit or restrict voluntary transactions at market prices, e.g. making it illegal to sell bone marrow or a kidney.  In other words, it’s the standard “markets fail, use government” approach, in which case we would have to be very concerned about “government failure.”
3. Maybe the question should be: “What isn’t for sale now that could be without government regulation or legislation?” Like raw milk, kidneys, bone marrow, lemonade stands, etc.

HT: Warren Smith

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