You have £2000, I have a kidney

Glen Newey

  • BuyWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel
    Allen Lane, 244 pp, £20.00, April 2012, ISBN 978 1 84614 471 4
  • How Much Is Enough?: The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky
    Allen Lane, 256 pp, £20.00, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84614 448 6

Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy does for the market what the London Dungeon does for urban history. It’s a compendium of horror stories arising from what one might call the ryanairation of social life, the breakdown of once cash-free practices into severally billable units of account. Capitol Hill lobbying outfits now pay queuing firms to stand in line, sometimes overnight, so that the lobbyists can step in just before a committee session starts; ‘concierge’ medical companies offer queue-jumping treatment to those willing to stump up the fees. Firms pay people to sport temporary tattoos of company logos on their foreheads. Inuit sell their hunters’ vouchers to vacationing gunslingers eager to blow walruses away at point-blank range. Gift-reassignment firms allow you to parry Yuletide atrocity knitwear targeted at you by well-meaning relatives and palm it off on some other luckless recipient – which, as Sandel notes, raises the prospect of Argyle socks ping-ponging their way across cyberspace for ever.

It has long been thus. After I finished school I lived for a while with my aunt on her farm in Worcestershire. Life was primitive – dead lambs were dumped in the bathtub, which wasn’t used for much else – but even here the market had made its entrée. Of an evening Uncle Stan would sit poring over glossy booklets consisting entirely of photos of meadow-bound bulls and the odd curveting heifer, with punchy but obscure straplines (‘Horton: power with dairyness’). The brochures were advertising bull semen. You filled in your picks and a few weeks later a vet would pitch up with a supercooled urn and a large syringe. Nowadays, human sex cells are big business too. The small-ads pages of US university bulletins routinely contain puffs for egg donors, with premiums payable for high GPA and Jewish antecedents. Some sperm firms offer discounts for the holiday season (‘Though it may not be the most traditional gift …’), and put up money-shots of their ‘donor of the month’ online.

At the other end of the life cycle, as Sandel tells us, ‘viatical’ firms in the US take on unwanted life insurance policies en bloc from seniors in the hope that the Grim Reaper will yield a steady annual return. Goldman’s and others market ‘death bonds’, tradeable securities that bundle life insurance policies to pay an income stream on maturity – i.e. when the insurees obligingly die. Investors face the spectre of toxic death bonds that reach maturity far later than their price suggests. ‘Death pools’ like the Ghoul Pool and stiffs.com run sweepstakes on which celebrities will peg out in the current year. Would-be punters on stiffs.com are egged on with a ‘newest stiffs’ page (current features: Ray Bradbury, Richard Dawson) and the lure of ‘cyberboner’ windfalls for those who manage to pick the next celebs to go. All this elicits from Sandel a mixture of bafflement and revulsion.

In fact, as Sandel recognises, the line between insurance and gambling was blurred long ago. Soon after the National Lottery was introduced, people realised that insurers could mimic the lottery by allowing punters to insure against a particular line of numbers winning. A life insurance firm that issues a policy to a fit forty-year-old on receipt of a year’s premium is in effect making a bet with that person, at longish odds, that she won’t die in the next year. You might think that only the insured person and next-of-kin should be eligible to take out life insurance policies, as only they have an insurable interest in the relevant person’s survival. But, as with stiffs.com, there’s nothing to stop kibitzers from creating a financial interest in someone else’s death. Sandel relates the case of Michael Rice, a Walmart employee who collapsed and died while carrying a customer’s new television to her car. The company had insured Rice without his knowledge for $300,000, which Walmart then trousered, giving Rice’s widow and two children nothing.

With cases like this in mind, Sandel notes that the US and other capitalist countries have moved beyond the market economy: they are now market societies. The case for the market rests on two major claims: it’s not judgmental about values, and it’s efficient. The nonjudgmentalism claim often surfaces when funding for public services like libraries or the BBC is in question. People disagree about what is valuable; nobody can authoritatively claim to know what the good is. So there’s no authoritative basis for levying taxes to fund these services, rather than leaving the provision of goods to free competition. If (but only if) the service providers find they can turn a profit by purveying libraries or broadcasting programmes to consumers that will show they are offering a service people really want. Otherwise they will be reduced to the didactic posture of John Reith or Matthew Arnold, pretending to know better than people themselves what is good for them. This idea, in the Thatcherite spring of the 1980s, lent pro-market advocacy its anti-elitist patina.

The efficiency argument is just as familiar. Take a capitalistic transaction between consenting adults. You have money, say £2000, and I have a working kidney; but I’d prefer having your £2000 to my kidney, while you’d rather have my kidney than your money – possibly for resale to a third party at a mark-up. So we can swap to mutual advantage. In the jargon, the position we reach when I get the £2000 and you have my kidney is Pareto-optimal as regards the initial position: we have made someone (in fact, each of us) better off, while making nobody worse off. Everyone’s a winner.

It’s here that Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s argument cuts in. Their main target is the pursuit of growth for its own sake which, as they say, has become dogma for politicians across the globe: certainly ‘mainstream’ politicians usually assume that when it comes to output, big is good, and bigger is better. But, as the Skidelskys argue, channelling human energies towards creating ever higher GDP per head needs to be justified by instrumental or constitutive reasons. They are also critical of the new ‘happiness economics’ pioneered by Richard Layard, which treats happiness in terms of satisfaction – what the late Martin Hollis called ‘microwatts of inner glow’ – not, as Aristotle did, as a harmony between character, deliberation, action and circumstance. For Aristotle, being ‘happy’ (the usual translation of eudaimon) depends on a disposition to make correct practical judgments. It also depends, for him, on having enough schole, or ‘leisure’ (one reason slaves’ lives can’t be eudaimon), and the Skidelskys follow suit. In this they propose a reversion to ideas of leisure advocated by Keynes and earlier by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue in The Right to Be Lazy. Keynes thought that higher productivity through capital accumulation and technical progress would allow increased leisure: given that work is disagreeable, if people can earn a living wage by working, say, three hours a day rather than ten, they will opt for a shorter and less absolutely productive working day. That things haven’t gone that way is in part a consequence of deunionisation and the fact that real-income gains have been much greater at the top end of the distribution than lower down, so that although mean income in the US and UK has risen in recent decades, median income has been comparatively stagnant. It’s also, as the Skidelskys point out, to do with lifestyle factors, such as the hyper-consumption ethos. As Sandel would agree, people are encouraged to assign leisure time an opportunity cost as forgone wages – an instance of the collapse of the distinction between use and exchange value.

Once they have rejected the idea of growth for its own sake, the Skidelskys argue – contrary to the nonjudgmentalist case for the market – that there are indeed objective truths about the good, the main one being the very fact that there are such truths. In their view (though this is certainly a further step), this licenses one to draw up a list of goods that a worthwhile human life needs to contain. Their list, not unlike those proposed by such Catholic Aristotelians as John Finnis and Robert George, covers the goods of personality (‘the ability to frame and execute a plan of life reflective of one’s tastes, temperament and conception of the good’), respect, health, security, leisure, friendship and harmony with nature. Sometimes the list, or the possibility of making one, yields arrestingly specific judgments. The Skidelskys favour wine over crack cocaine, for example, since the former ‘enhances food’ – presumably as part of the good of health, or maybe leisure – ‘and friendship’; that I may prefer crack to wine ‘does not alter this fact; it simply shows me to have corrupt taste.’

So much for those leisure evenings spent splitting a rock or three with friends in a bid to unfold one’s idea of the good or trigger a dopamine-sodden sense of cosmic bliss. The more specific the argument, the more it lies open to nonjudgmentalist challenge. It’s one thing to say, as the Skidelskys do, that there’s an objective truth about the good; it’s another to infer from this a list of goods even as general as the one they present, let alone whether one should take a sniff of Bolivian marching powder or neck another glass of Valpolicella. They don’t need these claims to make their basic point that politicians under capitalism pander to a craving for endless growth. One gets the impression that for the Skidelskys the pursuit of growth displays the same recursiveness as someone who treats any holding of goods as providing a platform for yet more acquisition, a person who has ‘an uncontrollable desire to collect cats’, for example. That urge certainly seems odd, but there are both abstract and concrete reasons why it may not model politicians’ push for growth.

Economic growth could be infinite but asymptotic (tending to a limit value), unlike the growth pursued by the cat-hoarder, whose behaviour leads to an endlessly expanding kitty. More concretely, as Keynes’s distinguished biographer, Robert Skidelsky needs no reminding that the postwar Western consensus on promoting growth had as a prime rationale the solution of the distribution problem: with growth in output, it was hoped, even those at the bottom of the heap would have enough for a decent life. Even under Reagan, supply-siders reached for the rhetoric of ‘trickledown’ to justify corporate tax breaks. And modern ‘sufficientarians’, who agree that policy should aim at getting everyone up to a minimum threshold rather than at full equality, also think growth instrumentally desirable. It may be one of the perspectival delusions to which democratic politics falls prey that even though nobody in the abstract favours infinite growth, at any specific point on the output curve people want to increase it in the name of Pareto improvement. One explanation for this lies in relativistic notions of poverty and affluence.

Sandel is perhaps less bothered by the endless pursuit of growth and its commandeering of the political process. He finds two other big things to worry about. The first is corruption, by which he means not public officials’ cult of the scratched back and the greased palm, but the process whereby the market distorts the value of social practices, sometimes to the point of unrecognisability. An obvious example, cited by Sandel, is friendship. One can farm out certain friend-like services to therapists, prostitutes and cab-drivers. But somehow it’s not the same, even though these professionals may do the job better than amateurs. Sandel’s idea here may be simply that money transforms one kind of relation, with its own value, into another. Or it may be that one’s experiential states should bear an appropriate relation to value, and the market gets in the way of this – the point, perhaps, behind Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. Suppose the people I take to be my friends are in fact hirelings on a retainer paid from the legacy of a maiden aunt who wanted to guarantee me a social life. Even if I never find out, this may be thought a misfortune for me: these relationships lack the value I ascribe to them. Similarly, if I treat my organs as merchandise, my attitude to my own person is corrupted. Sandel doesn’t mention Kant, but the second formulation of the categorical imperative seems relevant here: do not treat humanity, whether in your own person or another, merely as a means to an end.

Second, Sandel sees markets as immoral. My presentation of the kidney sale assumes that I surrender the kidney as part of a voluntary transaction. But few people go in for kidney-removal recreationally. Usually, they do it because they need the money – though it was reported recently that a 17-year-old Chinese had sold his to buy an iPad and an iPhone. The same point is often made about prostitution. So the underlying objection is not so much about voluntariness as fairness. Why should some people and not others be reduced to selling their body parts, or renting their bodies, for cash?

Sandel argues that while the point about voluntariness does reduce to an objection about fairness, it remains distinct from the charge of corruption. Suppose – how far this still counts as a counterfactual is a matter for debate – that college places are put up for sale to the highest bidder. Someone could object to that on grounds of fairness: people with more money can outbid those with less. But one could also argue that even if everyone starts out with the same amount of money, the good of education will be tainted by the cash nexus. At least education will continue to exist even if its delivery is perverted by money: people will still learn things, even if they have had to pay. But some goods, like friendship, might cease to exist, since their status as goods depends on their not being paid for.

Free-marketeers are often insouciant about Sandel’s corruption charge. Do I demean myself if I hawk my body parts for cash? Very well, I demean myself. As long as I freely do the demeaning, that’s fine. Still, one might persist in asking what in general marks the process of corruption, and what makes it a bad thing. Perhaps when an activity gets corrupted, its internal goal – the activity’s essential point – is frustrated. So with medicine, say, the internal goal is curing people; this goal is frustrated when medical care is allocated not on the basis of need, but ability to pay. However, such arguments are difficult to sustain. As Robert Nozick pointed out, one can trivially invent a new activity – call it ‘schmoctoring’ – which is just like doctoring, except that its internal goal is to earn money for the schmoctor. Does providing medical care gratis on the NHS corrupt schmoctoring, frustrating its internal goal? The obvious response is that doctoring is more worthwhile to society than schmoctoring. But that’s a conclusion in need of an argument.

Two more objections might be lodged against Sandel’s claim that markets corrupt. First, one could sometimes deny that what was lost was genuinely a good at all, or at least a good for us. For instance, replacing slavery with a wage relation between employers and manumitted slaves on sugar plantations might be said to have ‘corrupted’ the institution of slavery, but most would see that as a move in the right direction. Second, one might argue that the process Sandel describes as ‘corruption’ doesn’t really mean that value is depleted so much as transformed. Take the shift from a system where domestic work is unaccounted for to one where the allocation of home labour is subject to agreement between those who benefit from it. Members of a household have an agreement that sets out the tasks to be done and requires the parties to buy offsets from their partners or spouses if they fail to do their allotted tasks. Here again, the change is not unmitigated loss.

It is one thing to say that differences in wealth make a market unfair, and another to say that even a fair market vitiates a good. Corruption, one might argue, gives cause for regret only if, unlike slavery, the corrupted practice wasn’t unjust to start with. In that case, before applying the corruption test, you would need to sort just from unjust practices, so that the objection from justice or fairness comes first. Suppose university places were put up for sale but pecuniary causes of unfair competition were offset by means-testing. Suppose too, what there is good reason to doubt, that the opportunity cost of the marginal pound spent by collegegoers for their education under this regime could be equalised (without which the fairness of the system would be highly questionable): students forgo other benefits by spending their money on college fees, which might be a champagne cocktail for a rich student, or an evening meal for a poor one. Such a system would not be a free market, since that allocates goods by actual purchasing power: if, on the other hand, it were a free market, with the offsets removed, the question of fairness would immediately arise. The point is not that establishments like A.C. Grayling’s New College of the Humanities aren’t really providing an education, because their existence has ‘corrupted’ this good, but that this good is accessible only by dint of ability to pay.

Unlike the Skidelskys, Sandel doesn’t address head-on the two vaunted strengths of the market, its lack of pretension and its efficiency; his book is a vivid series of worked examples showing the spread of the market today and its power to transform social life. He does, though, cite the well-known case of an Israeli school where, after the school started fining parents for picking up their children late, the incidence of late pick-ups actually rose. As that example suggests, upping the opportunity cost of a particular behaviour by fines may fail to deter it if the fine shifts its context from social co-operation to commerce. But then the externality – here, the higher incidence of late pick-ups – won’t be tracked by taking individual transactions between tardy parents and the school, which are defined as efficient (each party prefers a late pick-up plus the fine to a prompt pick-up without one). Here as elsewhere Sandel leaves it implicit that market transactions fail to capture certain values, without spelling out exactly when this is so.

Consider bribery, which Sandel discusses in relation to rewarding children to try harder at school. What is a bribe? No doubt it can be defined as ‘an illicit pecuniary transaction’ or something similar, but that leaves it entirely open which transactions are illicit and what makes them so. The cash-flow can of course go in the other direction, from students to teachers. Imagine I strike a deal with a student that I will give her term paper a passing grade if she gives me £1000: a Pareto-efficient trade. After all, essay-writing agencies do students’ term papers for cash. Or is that bribery too? In the case of blackmail, it seems disingenuous to argue that a trade makes a Pareto-improvement relative to an initial situation that exists only because of the threat itself (‘My life for my money? Deal!’). It proves quite hard to apply the notion of an illicit transaction without wheeling in some heavy ordnance that mentions, roughly, the way things are meant to work – in other words, the judgment that they ought to work that way.

This is where the market’s vaunted strengths start to crumble. It is deluded to think, as the ideologically laden term ‘free market’ invites one to do, that zero regulation is an option: even Ron Paul probably doesn’t think that everything should be vendable to whoever is willing to pay for it. Sometimes, as with insider trading, libertarians make out that curbs are allowable only if they make the market itself run properly, as with rules against cartels – oligopoly is as much a creature of the market as the free competition that marketeers take as their paradigm. But this internal goal argument is as unpersuasive as the one I discussed earlier. In any case, most legal restrictions on free exchange have no plausible laissez-faire rationale. Some pro-marketeers follow through by endorsing a free-for-all in recreational drugs, but fewer would be so relaxed about a free trade in child porn or nuclear weapons. Is the contract assassination of business rivals all part of the rough and tumble of the souk? Should billionaire serial killers be able to buy their way off death row, or out of jail entirely? What if a wealthy philanthropist can suborn enough Congressmen to pass laws allowing gay marriage? It’s not merely that everybody’s gorge rises at some point. Letting free economic actors get on with it was supposed to take the place of controversial claims about what is and isn’t good. But even – or maybe especially – gun-toting backwoods apostles of Ayn Rand make moral judgments; certainly Rand did. What authority do they have over the rest of us?

Sandel demurs from the idea that preferences revealed in market behaviour must make for efficiency. That claim is trivial if it says that a transaction must be efficient because it satisfies the wants of those involved, when the basis for ascribing the wants is the fact of the transaction. Even if a given bilateral trade is locally efficient, it commits the fallacy of composition to assume that aggregating all such trades must be efficient globally. The notion of efficiency can be beefed up by giving it a utilitarian spin: swapping a kidney for an iPad is efficient because it is a Pareto improvement for each trader and, since nobody else is left worse off by it, society must be better off. However, that says very little about the utility of the market as a whole. Equilibrium in markets is decided by de facto purchasing power; but, as Sandel points out, in a given trade there may well be those left off-market by a lack of means whose position would be improved more by the good than the actual buyer’s would. Diminishing marginal utility is no friend of untrammelled markets, because it urges reassigning goods to those who have less. As some Hayekians argue, the strong property rights upheld by ‘libertarians’ oppose efficiency, because they can tie up capital unproductively. The efficiency and nonjudgmentalism cases for the market share a common flaw: each relies for legitimation on wants expressed in market behaviour. The wants this behaviour reveals show only how that person elected to act in those circumstances, with built-in limits on power and knowledge.

There is of course a third rationale for the market, beyond efficiency and nonjudgmentalism: liberty. On this view, as Sandel puts it, people should be free to buy and sell whatever they please, as long as they don’t violate anyone’s rights. Libertarians see the right to own and trade as fully on a par with liberal freedoms of speech, worship or association. But this is a hostage to fortune. The liberal freedoms are what might be called non-rival: people can enjoy them without stopping others from doing so. The freedom of private proprietors, by contrast, is rival: if I own a car, my right of discretionary use excludes others’ rights in it – indeed, on the standard view, they bear concomitant duties. The ‘liberty’ of property-owners means limiting the liberties of others. Suppose the state offered citizens portfolios of entitlements – to speak their mind, to vote, to practise the religion of their choice, or to acquire resources. At what point, and on what grounds, would the state decide to award some citizens much more extensive portfolios than others? And when would it decide that more liberties should go to those prepared to pay for them, so they could buy greater freedom to speak, worship and assemble – or indeed pay to have others’ freedoms reduced? And if proprietorial freedom is so important, why should it be treated differently?

In fact, it’s not clear that libertarians’ claims about liberty are really distinct from those about efficiency, given that they usually think liberty is about acting on one’s wants. Doubts about efficiency could be seen as a specific version of Sandel’s corruption criticism: markets crowd out wants other than those expressed by consumption, and pervert or destroy the goods at which they aim. However, fungibility also seems to pose a dilemma for those who criticise the market’s injustice. Sandel objects to markets’ unfairness on the grounds that moral costs may result when relations based on cash supersede others (although he accepts that non-monetary exchange exists in the form of barter and so on, his argument specifically targets those based on cash). But as the example of unremunerated domestic work suggests, non-fungibility may let exploitation persist by helping to make it invisible. It was central to Marx’s account of capitalism that it was possible in principle to put a precise pecuniary figure on the rate of workers’ exploitation, as the ratio between the surplus value extracted from them and the value embodied in their wages. How far then should cash equivalence be seen as an enemy to fairness, rather than as a useful means for exposing injustice?

Problems deepen – not only for Sandel, but for the justice project generally – given that norms of justice need to make use of notions like ‘how well one person or group is doing, compared with another’. Measuring the value of one person’s bundle of resources against another’s requires a currency in which to compare them. The goods whose value we would need to express this way are very heterogeneous: they obviously include things like wealth and income, but also opportunities, health, friendship and other more intangible measures of well-being. The only remotely plausible candidate to serve as this currency is money or a money surrogate – for instance, in Ronald Dworkin’s theory of equality, people bid for resources using clamshells as a medium of exchange. A general snag is that once money does this job, valuations can be distorted by the very market relations that justice seeks to remedy; a problem specific to Sandel is that the corruption point then rubs against the one about fairness. You need money-type valuations to know what’s fair; but, if he’s right that money corrupts goods, the process of gauging value by this means may itself destroy the thing being valued.

This glitch comes from needing to put figures to people’s holdings of resources, coupled with the claim that the market’s way of doing this corrupts the social practices of exchange. The problem of calibrating justice for different goods can be exaggerated, however. As Jonathan Wolff and Avner de-Shalit have shown, disadvantages in basic social goods tend to cluster: similar groups suffer from bad health, a low income and poor education. The point about commodification cuts deeper. Justice theorists are usually interested in ensuring fair access to the things that can make people’s lives go well. Suppose one person is good-looking, bright and charismatic, while another is ugly, dim and boring. Goods like those possessed by the first person are not fully commodifiable – you can’t, say, transfer them from the first person to the second by subjecting the first to a lobotomy. Since the goods do contribute significantly to how well people’s lives go, a case can be made in justice for the second person to get net compensation from the first. But that calls for thoroughgoing commodification in the goods of life, whatever the terms of trade between them. Does the willingness to follow through on this evince a laudable zeal for principle, or a higher boorishness?

Even if Sandel’s fairness objection is stronger than the one about corruption, the latter proves to have a sting in its tail. Corruption on his view basically means the draining of value from social life by the cash nexus; but value can also be depleted by commodification in the name of justice, the repackaging of goods within distinct social practices as items on a balance-sheet, to be shunted between just claimants. The point surfaces, tellingly, over gifts. So-called ‘non-rival’ gifts, like salvation or giving directions, leave donors no worse off; but material gifts usually incur a loss for them. Sandel dwells on orthodox economists’ bafflement over why so many people lumber recipients with a fruitcake or a beige cardigan, when cash would let them buy something they actually wanted.

A parallel poser faces principles of distributive justice. If the principle commends equality, say, then gift-giving may be in conflict with the principle: nepotism must be curbed, for example, to promote equal opportunities. How far moral limits on gifts should reach – should they cover reading one’s children bedtime stories and thereby boosting their likely educational outcome? – is a non-trivial question. Michael Walzer’s idea of ‘complex equality’ tries to do justice to goods’ contextuality; but complexity sits ill with egalitarianism. No single method gauges how well people are doing, and contextual goods often demand inequality. This points towards generalised commodification: some theorists think that human bodies should be re-envisioned as communally owned banks of organs, to be shunted around for transplant as justice dictates. One reason for doubting that rests squarely on justice itself, but in general the project of justice is not given to self-limitation.

There’s no reason to think that markets will prove a more enduring way of organising production than, say, feudalism. At present, though, in the face of the market’s dominance, theorising about justice seems a bit like trying to do origami in a tornado. Nearly everyone thinks that markets need tempering by morality: even libertarians usually go large on certain moral rights. Sandel rightly stresses that the market’s limits have to be set, if at all, politically. The Skidelskys propose ‘non-coercive paternalism’ to deter cupidity: an unconditional basic income and a consumption tax, with curbs on advertising to stem purely market-created wants. The latter is hard to object to, though ideological economists like Gary Becker claim that people want their wants to be created via commercials. The authors accept that many oppose basic income for encouraging idleness, and a consumption tax because it’s hard to avoid penalising spending on gifts and investment as well as consumption. A consumption tax could be both redistributive and foster saving. But like basic income or stricter advertising rules, there’s little chance of it being taken up by capitalist politicians beholden to the very short-term consumer preferences the market gratifies.

To acknowledge that does not mean accepting with libertarians that market-elicited preferences have authority that others lack. But precisely because democrats can’t just reduce what’s politically conclusive to what’s intellectually compelling, the argument has to take place at the political level. Political processes will decide whether markets are an effective way to organise production, how to take account of natural monopolies, externalities, deficient information and so on. Moral intuitions can enter into the process. But moral thoughts clash, and intuitions about morality are as prone to blind spots as anything else. One of them concerns labour markets. Nearly all Sandel’s examples deal with producer-purchaser deals in consumer markets, rather than workers’ sale of their labour-power. But if we’re charting ‘the moral limits of markets’, then sweatshops, workforce casualisation and child labour seem as good a place to start as any.