What Money Can’t Buy: End the Tyranny of Markets Now!

By Shlomo  Maital  



 The Mastercard elephant:  Priceless???

In a Mastercard commercial, an elephant keeper in a zoo catches cold and goes home. His elephant picks up his Mastercard credit card, and with it buys tissues ($4), cold medicine ($11), soup ($4) and a warm blanket ($24),  and brings it to his keeper’s home. 

    After quoting all those prices, the narrator says,   “Making it all better….priceless”. 

    The problem is, with the overwhelming dominance of capitalism and free markets, thanks to us economists, everything today has a price, including things that should not.  Even ‘making it all better’.

     Princeton Univ. Professor  William Baumol, who taught me microeconomics nearly 50 years ago, once observed that “a price is a relationship between people, expressed as a relationship between things [money and goods].”  Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel believes that at least some relationships between people should NOT have a market price, precisely because they are priceless.  “Markets crowd out morals,” he writes, in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. 

   He is absolutely right.  In another of their destructive ideas, economists teach that when you create a market for something, you make it efficient.  Here is a wide variety of things that now have prices: 

    * Kids in schools are paid for grades or achievement.

    * Criminals in prisons buy luxury cells ($82 a night).

    * Sheriffs are paid by the number of prisoners they incarcerate (Lousiana).

  * Lobbyists pay people to stand in line for them, to get seats in Congressional hearings. (They charge $36-$60/hr., often reaching $1,000 a seat, and pay $$10-$20/hr. to those standing in the queue).  

   * Doctors offer ‘concierge service, for up to $25,000 a year, giving people priority in service, and no waiting. 

    * Airlines offer no-queue service, even in security lines.

   * In theme parks, a premium ticket lets you jump long queues.

  What’s wrong with all this?  Simple.  Today, in capitalist America, you can buy anything and everything. Despite Mastercard, nothing is priceless.  Once queues were the great equalizer…rich and poor waited for Grateful Dead tickets. No longer. If you have money, you jump almost every queue.   Today, whether you are at Universal Studios theme park or waiting for a rock concert ticket on-line, if you have money, you get what you want, if you don’t, you probably don’t. Because those who pay to jump queues push those who don’t far back to the end of the line.

     It’s just another case of rampant raging capitalism, out of control, guided by economists who have put their ethical judgment into the drawer…permanently. 

     If you think it’s just and sensible to have lobbyists’ deep pockets capture all the seats in a Congressional hearing, if you think Congress should allow this obscene practice, well, ignore this blog.  [A Democrat Congresswoman tried to ban it – the Republicans foiled her attempt.]   If you think there things that, like Mastercard says, should forever remain priceless,  let me know.   If you think that not every relationship between people should be capable of expression in terms of things, let me know.

    As Sandel says, “we live at a time when almost anything can be bought and sold.  The logic of buying and selling governs the whole of life.  It is time to ask whether we want to live this way.”  

    I don’t.  Do you?