We now live a world where almost everything can be bought and sold for profit and where most of us have come to unquestionably accept this principle. It extends way beyond the material goods on display in a supermarket, the tickets for sporting events, or the price of private education. Today we accept that price governs decisions about areas of public and private life like healthcare, education and immigration. In our pursuit of the market principle that markets are the most efficient way to distribute scarce resources, have we become a society in which everything has a price but no-one appreciates its value?
Michel Sandel, a Harvard University economics professor, sets out to explore the complex relationship between price, value, morality and justice. In this elegantly written and amusing book* you’ll find some extreme examples of human behaviour. As both a marketer and a mother I found the research into incentives fascinating. Should we, for example, pay our children to read more books, write more thank you letters, or bribe teenagers with bonuses for achieving higher academic grades? Whilst most of us would agree that these are worthy ends in themselves, do you feel differently about allowing people to pay for conservation work by being allowed to shoot an endangered species such as a rhino? Sandel includes some seemingly bizarre and perverse workings of our free markets. He asks why is it that parents collecting children from paid after school child care arrive late at collection time more often when they were charged for the privilege than when it was free?
In reading this book, you are taken through many different examples of how placing a financial value on a product or service intrinsically alters our attitude towards the product and therefore often changes our behaviour. In the case of charitable giving he explains why you can achieve more donations by paying a large incentive to the volunteers. Pay too small a financial incentive and the volunteers are insulted and will collect larger donations when doing it for free. Apparently lawyers respond better to pro bono work than to reducing the fees for work. Through these and other examples he asks us to consider carefully our principles of fairness and equality and argues that the very process of buying and selling goods corrupts their value.
The end of the book considers more politically contentious issues; how large financial institutions have increasingly invented new ways of betting on life and death and the invasion of adverts and sponsorship into virtually every walk of life. Nothing is sacred. We have been taken on a journey that started with a light-hearted look at markets and get to the end deep in thought about the way we live today. A great read.
Whatever your political persuasion, the fundamental questions remain – do we really want to live in a society where literally everything is up for sale? If there are certain moral and civic goods that shouldn’t be treated this way, how should we re-invent the rules?
*What Money Can’t Buy, the moral limit to markets by Michael J. Sandel, 2012.