The morality of the market: can everything be bought?

Can everything be bought?

Last week I wrote about ‘Happy Money’, written by Harvard professor Michael Norton, and concluded with him that happiness can be ‘bought’ when money is spent wisely.

Today, I want to face another question: should it be possible to buy everything with money, even if it is unjust, unfair or immoral? Another Harvard professor, philosopher Michael Sandel, has written a book pondering all facets of this question.

I bought Sandel’s book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ in February, shortly before travelling to my course on happiness economics at Schumacher College. His prose made me realise how evasively money has entered all domains of life and how absurd some transactions are.

Allow an ad on your forehead: $777

In his book, he dives into various weird, and sometimes even out rightly wrong, areas of capitalism:

  • Lobbyist pay homeless people to wait in line for Congress hearings in Washington  (quite sure this does not happen in Brussels): $10-20 per hour.
  • The pay a six-year-old school child in Dallas gets for reading a book: $2.
  • Compensation for offering your forehead as an advertising space for Air New Zealand: $777.
  • If you are a woman addicted to drugs, you can ‘earn’ money by agreeing to sterilisation: $300.
  • Markets crowding out social values: priceless.

Some of these are clear excesses of capitalism, whilst others are a little more subtle. In a way, money and power have always mattered. Wealthy businessmen are sponsoring the presidential campaign Obama in the hope to get rewarded with an ambassador post or a certain policy. Or they might make a donation to an Ivy League university in the hope their children will be taken on. Like it or not, but I fear it is how the world works and worked for centuries. But even if that is reality, it does go against the principle of equality we all sympathise with – unless we risk losing out ourselves.

Rent-A-Friend: $10 per hour

Still, we know that these things feel a lot better and authentic when they are deserved. In 2000, a Dutch movie ‘Rent A Friend’ came out, about an an agency that rented out ‘friends’ to people that felt lonely. Despite the feeling that friendship can’t be bought, the idea has been taken up in real life: boasts being able to offer over 500,000 ‘friends’, starting at $10 a hour, though many will waive their fee if you take them to a concert or sports event – very generous!

Markets in life and death 

Markets should have limits, argues Sandel. And it should be us as people, citizens, consumers to pose them. One of the most fascinating chapters talks about the markets of life and death. He documents many examples where life and death are sold and bought. For instance, he speaks of ‘celebrity death pools’, where people place bets on who is most likely to die.

Death list is one of these sites (though it appears there is no money involved). ‘Hopes’ are her on a death for Prince Philip or Stephen Hawking; Fidel Castro is on for the 11th year. Castro also makes it to a list at Here, voters have a good hand; six names out of the top ten have died this year.

But Sandel cites even crazier and more repulsive practices: employers  take life insurances on their employees, and then cash the payout if they die prematurely. Or people trade on the terrorism futures market, which rewards people who rightly guess when and where terrorists strikes, and how many people are killed.

Bring morals back to the market

From a capitalists perspective, there is nothing wrong with this. It is a market, and people are only accountable to themselves for their transactions. But as Sandel indicates, there are too many absurd, immoral, and sometimes plain wrong things that are bought and sold. And all this should stop.

Still, I don’t think laws and regulation are not the best ways to put limits to these markets. It is a moral issue, and it is our responsibility as citizens to reflect on our decisions and follow or moral compass. The limits of markets are set by consumers and nobody else. In recent decades, we have allowed ourselves to go way too far. It’s time to bring morals back to the market.

Everything can be bought. But markets crowding out social values: priceless.


Little surprise: also Sandel has given a TED talk about his work.

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