Markets and Morality


There are two reasons why economic driven behavior cannot become the order-generating force for any society to which the socialist** label could be properly attached. The first, often featured in critical literature, is that societies driven by the need to accumulate capital, and subjected to the pressures of the market, suffer from severe deformations, including the alienated consciousness induced by extensive commercialization, the deformation of individual character caused by the over-division of labor, and the socially harmful bias toward self-directed rather than other-directed values. A second, less familiar but no less serious objection is that a general subordination of action to market forces demotes progress itself from a consciously intended social aim to an unintended consequence of action, thereby robbing it of moral content.

** By socialism I mean a society unmistakably disconnected from the very idea of economic determinism, severed from capitalism’s most powerful history-shaping characteristic—namely, its subordination of behavior to economic imperatives.

Robert Heilbroner, The Nation, September 1993

I have often used parts of this quote from Robert Heilbroner, particularly the last sentence. This sentiment written about 20 years says in a few words what Michael Sandel takes a whole book to do. Sandel, well known for his book, Justice and his famous course of the same name at Harvard recently published What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. I have ordered but not yet read the book, but listened to some extended videos of Sandel talking about the subject. But neither of these two was the first to caution us to avoid any practice that would devalue human beings.

Kant (pictured) captured much of what Heilbroner and Sandel say in his categorical imperative (1785), “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” Among the many possible interpretations of the statement, the one that always pops up first is that it is wrong to put any value on human life. Sandel focuses on several practices that ignore this prohibition. Life insurance is tricky. To the extent that one purchases it to provide resources for those who survive the insured’s death, there is no contravention of Kant’s imperative. But those who purchase life insurance on another as an economic bet of one sort or another are fundamentally putting a value on that life. Sandel writes about the development of “viaticals,” policies purchased earlier by people who were dying of Aids. Because these policies were valuable, a market developed for investors who would offer a lump sum to the dying Aids sufferers and also pay for their terminal care. They were betting on the length the person would live. And having some control over that length, unsurprisingly, there are many stories of unscrupulous behavior.

Sandel also writes about hiring poor folks to wait in queues. This is not quite a Kantian transgression, but offends those for whom fairness is an important moral rule. This practice allows one to buy his or her way out of a fair game. This is nothing new. It was often said of the Civil War that it was a “rich man’s battle” but a “poor man’s war.” $300 or so would pay for a substitute. It sounds Kantian after all since the substitute or place holder is considered as nothing but a means to some end.

Sandel is a political philosopher and has developed his cases with great care. Each example is subtle and nuanced. Allowing fines to replace community-based measures of shame or other moral sanctions fritters away the moral structure of society. With calls to privatize just about everything, we are in great danger of doing what Heilbroner said, robbing our society of its moral core. These cases don’t permit easy condensation into sound bites so they tend to get lost in today’s political rhetoric. No more Federalist Papers that explored the issues of the day in the depth necessary to act on an informed basis.

Sandel concludes: “The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?” I doubt that many who should listen to Heilbroner and Sandel will. I believe that many who are glibly going along with the privatization wave do not understand the moral implicationsa and might, if they did, choose a different route. Those leading the pack surely do know, and I wonder, if they can ignore this most clear of moral principles, what else is missing.