Are YOU for Sale?  Living in a Price-Tag Society

By Shlomo Maital

 

  

 The Price-Tag Society

  Are YOU for sale?  NO?  Are you sure?  There is a terrible joke about a well-heeled man who offers $10k to a classy blonde for the right to spend a night with her.  When she refuses, he tells her, well, now we know what you are, it’s just a matter of negotiating the price.    More and more, our society is behaving like that man.  Everything has a price.

    Writing in The Atlantic (April 2012),*  philosopher Michael J. Sandel offers these examples of a price-tag society:  You can buy the services of an Indian surrogate mother for $8,000 (1/3 the going rate in America).  You can emigrate to America for $500,000 (that gets you a green card).  You can sell space on your forehead to display commercial advertising (a single mom in Utah was paid $10k by an online casino to install a permanent tatoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead).  You can be a human guinea pig in a clinical trial, for $7,500.  You can fight in Somalia or Afghanistan (for a private contractor) for $1,000 a day.  If you’re a second-grader, you can earn $2 for reading a book. 

   “We live in a time where everything can be bought and sold.  Over the past three decades,”,  notes Sandel, “markets – and market values – have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.” 

   The problem with the price-tag society –one of many problems – is that it is grossly unfair.  Those who have money can buy anything, including privileges. Those who lack it cannot buy anything, because everything costs money.   Even democracy has a price. Lobbyists in America pay line-standing companies, who pay homeless and others $15-$20/hr. to stand in line to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a Congressional hearing.   Conservatives say this is great for the homeless and the unemployed.  Others think it is less than great, when money buys even the chance to hear (and influence) Congressional discussions. 

    Oscar Wilde once said that a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing. I have used this definition often, to define “economist”.  Have we economists created a society, where everything has a price, and NOTHING at all has a true value?  Because some things are so intrinsically valuable, they should never ever have a price tag, subject to the laws of supply and demand, rather than the laws of fairness, ethics, and justice.   Not everything needs a market.   There is a limit to the realms of our lives where economics rules.  It’s time to define those limits.  Economists, get out of the way. 

  • What Isn’t For Sale?  By Michael J. Sandel. 
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