16 July 2012


From Ferdinand Mount's TLS review of What Money Can't Buy: The moral limits of markets (London: Allen Lane 2012) by Michael Sandel -
This wry and graceful polemic comes attended by a flock of shocking, delicious and absurd examples. In Santa Ana, California, you can buy a prison cell upgrade for $82 a night. For $150,000 in South Africa you can buy the right to shoot an endangered black rhino. Air New Zealand hires people to shave their heads and emblazon temporary tattoos on their foreheads with the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand”. Nor are such transactions confined to the West. In overcrowded Chinese hospitals, there is a hot market in appointment tickets to see the doctor, and the touts charge Wimbledon prices. In the US, you can buy the life insurance policy of an ailing old person, pay the premiums and then collect when he or she dies. The sooner the oldie croaks, the more you collect. This betting on a stranger’s death is now a $30 billion business and bears the charming name of “the viatical industry” – after the Latin word for the money and provisions supplied to Roman officials setting out on a journey, and by extension to the journey across the Styx. ...
As in many other areas of life, it is hard to discern much of a firm guiding principle. One can only agree with Edmund Burke that “It is one of the finest problems in legislation what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual direction. Nothing, certainly, can be laid down on the subject that will not admit of exceptions, many permanent, some occasional”. Sandel does concede that whether, in any given case, markets do the job better is a “highly contingent”, empirical question. But most of the time it is a question which he answers with an evident contempt for Trade and its contaminating effects. 
Nor is the cash nexus a novelty in politics. The idea that elections have been bought or sold only in the late twentieth century would have seemed laughable to Dickens or Mark Twain (is there a modern novel which equals The Gilded Age’s picture of a Washington riddled with lobbyists?). As for naming rights, it was forty years ago that Isaac Wolfson, the mogul of Great Universal Stores, became the first man since Jesus Christ to have a college named after him at both Oxford and Cambridge.