The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?
Sandel argues that America needs to enjoin a national dialog about what things should not be subject to the machinations of market exchange. He suggests that we mostly agree that children and kidneys should not be traded to the highest bidder and wonders where we might draw the line? Should the quality of healthcare be allocated on the basis of price? How about education, justice under law, clean water, access to political favor and people’s honest labor?
In practice, we all know that differential access to all of these “goods and services” are routinely sold to the highest bidders. What has changed in America over the past 50 years is our attitude toward living in a society in which everything has a price. The sense of shared moral boundaries that tell us what money can and can’t buy have been demolished. The so-called “laws” of market economics have reduced us to billiard balls caroming off one another, each of seeking some advantage in a world in which everything has a price, our very selves included.
I have been making a similar argument for a long time but nobody seems to find it very interesting. Most people seem to believe that the logic of markets is simply a given, like the laws of physics. Few people seem to understand that the “logic” markets is not only immorally amoral but, as discussed in many entries on this blog, actually false.
Sandel calls for a dialog about what should or should not be for sale to the highest bidder and notes that in such a dialog, there will be things about which we will not agree.
“These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.”
I think Sandel is barking up the wrong tree. We will never be able to sort out on a case by case basis, the moral meaning of some “goods” vs. others. It is the morality of our society that needs sorting out. Who are we as a people? What do we believe constitutes right and wrong, good and bad, in general? And how should we apply our shared sense of right and wrong, good and bad, in our everyday affairs?
A nation of wheeler-dealers auctioning off everything to the highest bidder is no nation at all and such a nation will fall to those nations that have a reliable internal compass that tells them what cannot be bought and sold AT ANY PRICE!