Not For Sale
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
In our GP class tonight, I was discussing with my students the rise of consumerism in our modern society and we were shocked by what money can buy these days. Want to shoot an endangered black rhino? Pay $250,000 in South Africa. Need a prison-cell upgrade? Just fork out $90 a night and you can have a clean, quiet jail cell in Santa Ana, California. Or if you want to earn some money, you can sell space on your forehead to display commercial advertising (which was what one mother did in Utah to earn $10,000 by allowing an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s web address on her forehead)
As we read through these examples, I asked my students what their reactions were and they replied: ‘shocking’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘angry’, ‘unjustifiable’. I probed further and asked them to think a bit deeper to find out why they were feeling the way they did. Eventually, we discovered together as a class that it was because these activities distort and warp our notions of justice, education, public safety, environmental protection, human dignity and many other arenas of life and society.
A wonderfully-written article written by Micheal Sandel (found here) describes how we have unknowingly allowed market forces and economic paradigms to creep into areas of our lives that were traditionally non-market related. We now live in a time when (almost) anything can be bought and sold – love, happiness, health, solace are now ‘purchaseable’ online. But why worry about the reach of markets, and of market values if the market has proven to be the most efficient way to allocate scarce resources? What’s wrong with a world where everything is up for sale?
Many things, in fact. Not least of which are two that Sandel highlights in his article: inequality and corruption of values. You see, the more money can buy, the more affluence – or the lack of it – matters. This means that life is going to be harder for those of modest means because as money comes to buy more and more, the unequal distribution of wealth becomes more and more obvious and painful.
But it is the second consequence that really caught my attention, which is the corrosive potential and power of markets. Putting a price on what we perceive make up the good life can eventually corrupt them. For instance, paying children to do household chores might get them to help out more around the house, but would also teach them to regard housework as money-making tasks. Markets don’t just allocate resources; they send signals and attach value to the things being transacted and exchanged. More insidiously, markets don’t discriminate between worthy choices and undesirable ones. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or the right to pollute the environment, or a human organ, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is, “How much?”; markets don’t teach us to ask, “Is this right?” And this nonjudgmental stance towards values is slowly but surely exacting a heavy price on how we come to attach value to the things in life.
To inject a Singaporean perspective on this issue, I also shared another article by Willie Cheng, who is a well-known local social entrepreneur and innovator. In examining how market values dominate Singaporean society, he sounds the alarm by prompting us to start asking hard questions like whether natural monopolies (such as public transport and telecommunications) or merit goods (such as pre-school education and health care) or morally hazardous activities (such as casino gambling) should be owned and/or managed by the state instead of being run by private operators focused on profits.
At the end of the day, we need to decide (as a society and as an individual) where markets belong and where they do not. If not, we certainly run the risk of paying too high a price in a culture that tells us that everything is for sale.