Amazon is an interesting marketplace for buying books. They know your purchase history and based on algorithms they suggest different books they think you might like. Many of the recommendations make sense. Occasionally, I have to speculate and connect the dots. And every once in a while, the recommendations seem to come out of thin air. Such was the case with the book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Market.” Most of the time I just pass over such things, but there was something about the title that piqued my attention.
The basic inquiry within the book is the ethical/moral question, “Are there some things that money can buy but shouldn’t?” As you might expect, the author, Michael J. Sandel, raises big questions such as, “Should we put a price on human life to decide how much pollution to allow?” “Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs?” What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars, auctioning admission to elite universities, or selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay? I suspect each one of you reading this will have your own reactions to each of these questions. But somewhere in the mix is the basic question, “At what point are some things not for sale in a market economy?”
That being said, I suspect most of us do not bump up against those big questions in our everyday life. But what about the one we do face? For example, you have just purchased an airline ticket. Will you now buy your way to the head of the boarding line? Will you buy priority screening access for the airport? Is this any different from boarding early? Some critics wonder if we have just made security checks more of an amenity (like extra leg room) than a matter of national defense. The airlines’ position is that the security is the same, only the wait varies by price.
Amusement parks also sell rights to jump the queue, to get guaranteed access times to attractions, VIP-tours, and more. Some lament the practice seeing it as corrosive of a more wholesome civic habit when every vacationing family waited in turn in a democratic fashion. It is not just amusement parks. What started as HOV and car pool lanes have now evolved into “lexus lanes.” The fees typically vary with the volume of traffic flow. Opponents of such schemes say that premium access simply affords the more affluent access, while assigning the poor to the back of the line. Proponents say that no one argues against a premium price for FedEx overnight delivery.
The book is replete with everyday examples that point to the possible encroachment of market economics in what were traditionally non-market arenas – and encroaching on the way we begin to reflect upon such questions. I grew up in the era when donating blood was part of the civic duty to one’s community. In the section, “How Markets Crowd Out Morals,” the author points to the areas of the country where selling blood is becoming the norm. This was just one of the examples.What was interesting, but in a disturbing manner, was this passage from a market advocate (not Dr. Sandel). “Ethical behavior is a commodity that needs to be economized. The idea is this: we should not rely on altruism, generosity, solidarity, or civic duty, because these moral sentiments are scarce resources that are depleted with use. Markets that rely on self-interest, spare us from using up the limited supply of virtue.”
At no point does Dr. Sandel introduce a religious point of view, but we are religious people. What would you say to the idea that there is a limited supply of virtue? As a person of faith I can tell you my reaction was to sit there stunned. At the core, it is the belief of the Christian faith that God is a fountain full of virtue poured into the world. Virtue is unlimited and freely given by God. Unlike economic theory, which says unlimited supply and access to a thing reduced the value of the thing towards zero, Christian belief says the virtues of God are priceless.
Does this belief in unlimited virtue lead you to rethink early boarding, jumping the queue, lexus lanes, or any one of pay-for-service ideas? No? Perhaps that is a warning bell that our familiarity with market operations and economies as the norm is beginning to displace our reflection on daily life with a view towards our unlimited supply of virtue from God.
At what point are some things not for sale in a market economy? At what point is there a queue we should not jump? The big questions will always be there for society to answer. But if we are people who take our faith seriously, we are called to be people who take the everyday choices and decisions of life into the moral realm. “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (Catechism §1776)