Kai Ryssdal: Money, when you think about it, has no value in and off itself. A dollar bill is just paper. But a dollar is worth a dollar because of what you can buy with it. And there are are more and more things you can buy with cold, hard cash than ever before.
Michael Sandel considers some of those things — and the markets in which we buy them — in his new book. It’s called “What Money Can’t Buy.” Michael Sandel, good to have you with us.
Michael Sandel: Good to be with you.
Ryssdal: I wonder if — and far be it for me to challenge the author on a title — shouldn’t this be called ‘What money shouldn’t buy?’
Sandel: Yes, you’re right.
Ryssdal: OK good. Thanks for coming in.
Sandel: Well, sort of. You’re sort of right. There’s a connection between what money can’t buy and what it shouldn’t but. But you’re right, I’m mainly concerned with what money should not buy. The cases I look at are controversial cases of commodification — trying to motivate kids to do better in school by paying them to read more books. So we might crowd out the desire to learn for the love of learning. That’s what economists often miss — the norms and attitudes that market values can displace and that’s what I’m worried about.
Ryssdal: All right, well let me pick something a little less value-judgment based. You spend the first chapter of this book on paying people to stand in line for you, which on the face of it kind of makes sense.
Sandel: Not only for concerts and World Series tickets, things like that, but do you know that to listen to Supreme Court arguments…
Ryssdal: On health care, just for instance, right?
Sandel: There you go. They hire line-standing companies, who hire people — often the homeless — to stand in line for 24, 48 hours, overnight. Now from a strictly economic point of view, it is efficient. But isn’t there a value here beyond efficiency?
Ryssdal: Well, explain that a little bit because the corporate lawyer will say my time is worth more than $125 an hour, so I can add to society’s value that they get from me by working at my job while this person stands in line. And also that person gets $125.
Sandel: Well, that’s true. Actually a company gets a good share of it. But the homeless person may get $18 an hour for his or her time, so it’s a voluntary exchange. But you could do it another way. You could cure the ineffiency in the market by having, the Supreme Court could auction off seats. But we would consider that corrupting the meaning and purpose of representative government. But if it would be wrong for the government to set a price, isn’t there something demeaning to put it up for sale through line-standing companies?
Ryssdal: I wonder if — and I get that it takes a long time to write a book — you’re a little bit late in raising these questions? Because if the financial crisis that we lived through three-and-a-half, four years ago, didn’t shake our faith in markets, can anything possibly do it?
Sandel: I think that many people thought there would be a kind of moral questioning about markets in the wake of financial crisis. It hasn’t happened because we’re very reluctant to bring controversial, moral questions about what is the right way to value education or health or military service? These are the questions I think we need to debate.
Ryssdal: Michael Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard University. His most recent book is called “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” Thanks a lot for your time.
Sandel: Thank you.
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