Archive for May, 2012


The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

I recently read Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy, and mostly liked it. I say “mostly” because I didn’t think he was in his usual form in pressing a very serious argument. He alludes to some common arguments against uncritically relying on markets to resolve moral problems in society. For one thing, markets treats trivial, laudable, and downright evil preferences in the same way. Fulfilling your desire to shoot Walruses as point blank gets as much weight (dollar for dollar) as my desire to go to to a good university or feed myself. Not only that, utilitarianism is probably flawed, whether or not there was a way to weight preferences for how meritorious they were. Also, markets measure the success of satisfying preferences by willingness to pay, but since money is finite, there is a mix, as Sandel puts it, of willingness to pay with ability to pay.

His real focus, if there could be said to be a single driving point, is that markets are not neutral in their effect on the things that are traded within them. Take a toast at a wedding. A toast expresses one’s emotion, and creating a market for the production and consumption of wedding toasts does not leave the product — toasts — intact. The toasts generated by this system would be only pseudo-toasts. Mere shadows of real toasts because, as Sandel says, buying a toast would not valuing the wedding occasion in the proper way.

One place the book succeeds is in coming up with killer examples. So many interesting examples of commodification and some of them really make you think. There is apparently a charity that pays drug users to get sterilized. The cause is good (in one way) because the idea is that the founder of this charity does not anyone to grow up with crack-addicted parents. On the other hand, the brochures for the charity are creepily worded and seem to acknowledge that this money will likely finance a drug habit, making the cash prize for sterilization somewhat exploitative.

And the commodification of life has a flipside in Sandel’s extensive discussion of the commodification of death. Before this book, I did not know about the viatical industry, which buys insurance policies from people and then profits when the person dies on schedule (in line with statistical projections that dictate when its advantageous to purchase a policy from someone). There are three main example that Sandel uses.

1. Janitor’s insurance. Companies take out insurance policies on their employees and so profit when the employee dies.

2. Viatical companies. These companies buy insurance policies from sickly people. This gives the dying person cash now for all the premiums paid over the years. Of course, some people take out insurance policies on themselves and turn right around and sell them immediately.

3. Death pools. People bet on which celebrities will die in the next year.

I think the case against these market mechanisms is weak. I don’t have a problem with janitor’s insurance because it make sense that companies might lose significant money if an important person with knowledge and skill dies. I don’t see how this justifies taking out policies on random worker, but there’s too much to say about this to do it all here.

Viaticals don’t really bother me either because it’s the choice of the person to sell the policy to a third party. Sandel says that doing this (paraphrasing here) “gives some other person an interest in your death.” But someone who takes out an insurance policy who wants to help his children gives HIMSELF an interest in his own death and also gives his family an interest in his death. My dad jokes about this all the time in regards to his life insurance policy; that somehow my mom and brother and I are hoping for his death when he does strenuous outdoor activities with us. But why then are standard life insurance policies acceptable? Is it that people can usually count on the support of themselves and their family to not want their death, so that in a sense, the beneficiaries of a death are “immunized” from the taint of betting on someone’s life?

Then Sandel talks about the sick practice of death pools. People gamble on who will die in a given year or other similar metrics. This to me is sick, but I don’t think it’s an illustration of commodification or commercialization. Gambling can be done on any event. It’s not really a market transaction but rather a consensual agreement. As Sandel notes, a free market ideology does not prohibit actions between consenting adults, but that doesn’t mean that commodification demands or requires this sort of thing. People are twisted and can do all sorts of sick things when left to their own devices. That does not mean, however, that gambling on people’s death is primarily due to a market ideology.

The last part of the book is about naming rights (naming fields after companies) and the proliferation of advertisements. I find this to be a very interesting topic, especially the latter. Here, we have witnessed an explosion of advertisements. Advertisements while you pee, books commissioned by companies to include product placements, in overhead bins, on cars, and even on people’s foreheads. Advertisements in any place you could possibly look. I don’t know if these advertisements should be banned or what, but I find the entire trend very INSULTING. I hate seeing the garbage that companies throw at me wherever I go. It’s an attempt to circumvent rational thinking and pull directly at our brainstem and to transform the entire world into one robotized buying/selling mechanism. Where individual needs and judgment are irrelevant. Humans would simply “emit” their needs and have them fulfilled (kind of like the humans who live in the spaceship in Wall-E). Human beings would become nothing but nodes of desire satisfaction.