Things that Money Can’t Buy– An Analysis of Moral Limits of Markets

In the globalised era that we live in, everything around us has been converted into commodities. All objects now come with a price tag and are being bought and sold. The penetration of markets has been one of the most powerful social and political tendencies of our time. The extension of markets and market-oriented thinking into the spheres of life that were beyond the reach of the markets has powerfully manifested today. This raises a fundamental question of whether there are ethical limits to what can be bought and sold. This moral limits to markets debate have received considerable attention in contemporary times. The aim of this article is to present an overview of this debate and attempt to answer if there are some things that money can’t buy.

The idea of the market basically refers to an arrangement where a particular good or service is being exchanged for money. It can range from simple exchanges like buying groceries to complex ones where the financial assets of one company are sold to another buyer. The idea of commodification that is being objected to and criticised is not necessarily speaking about illegal objects like drugs or organs but also to include a wide range of activities that are legally acceptable but not socially approved. For example, it is possible for publishing houses to pay book stores to display their books in front of their store so that the publisher’s sales can be improved. This practice might not be breaking any laws but is generally found to be unacceptable by many people. This makes this issue problematic because we are discussing products and exchanges that are not necessarily illegal but fall in the grey area of socially unacceptable activities.

This debate regarding the moral limits to markets has two important parts to it. The first argument was given by Michael Sandel who argued that markets cannot be selling anything and everything. The other side to this argument was given by Brennan and Jaworski who have argued that something that is done for free can be done for money.

Argument 1: Markets need to have moral limits

The largest proponent of Market Moralism is Michael Sandel who is of the view that markets erode the social values that we care about in society. When all activities come with a money value, people might not engage in them as actively as they would when they acted completely out of self-interest. The tendency of individuals to behave out of public spirit out of their own volition is actually being corroded when they are carried into the realm of market transactions. Some studies that gave monetary benefits for people who donated blood suggested that such rewards actually discouraged people from donating blood. The values of fairness and corruption actually explain why such a phenomenon operates.

The first argument is with regard to fairness. Markets are often considered as invisible forces that improve the interests of society. However, they fail to improve welfare when there are inequalities and acute shortages involved. For instance, when there is a disaster which has destroyed the basic necessities, the market would set a very high price for basic commodities like water and food. People who have already lost their income and wealth will not be able to pay and yet forced to pay that amount for their survival. Parties that are placed lower than the others stand to be exploited in the market. For instance, many farmers are forced to sell their produce at very low prices to large corporations.

The second objection is the issue of corruption and degradation of value. Sandel argues that putting a monetary value to all goods tends to degrade its value as market evaluation cannot completely put a value to it. It signals that anything and everything can actually be bought with money. It changes the attitudes that people have with regard to goods, promoting a view that goods can be exploited to use and profit. In the study conducted with regard to blood donation, the researchers concluded that the people found the monetary benefit to be too small a value for their blood donation. This could have reduced their motivation to donate blood. The value of blood donation is getting degraded and the attitudes of people have also undergone a change.

Argument 2: Markets need not have moral limits

Any argument against limiting commodification would also argue in favour of the expansion of the market. Brennan and Jaworski are of a simple philosophy- “If you may do it for free, then you may do it for money”. They feel that the act of exchanging of commodities is in itself not exploitative but the circumstances surrounding exchange are exploitative. For instance, selling animals for fighting and exploitation is objectionable but selling them as pets is not problematic. Therefore, the act of exchanging pets for money is not wrong but the problem is with the circumstances of the exchange. Effectively, markets may not in themselves be harmful to society but may cause harm when the conditions are not fair.

The exploitation objections with regard to markets are not a consequence of the actual exchange but other extraneous features of the exchange situation. Markets, therefore, are not inherently exploitative. The possibility of markets to harm does not mean that we cannot sell that good in the market. We can always monitor the market to ensure that there is no harm. Some of the most perfect markets have been the ones that are highly monitored like the stock market. Brennan and Jaworski have stated that we can modify some features of the market and make markets a better mechanism to determine the price of any commodity. There are also limitations on the ability to make use of these market dials to tweak markets as they tend to be interdependent with each other.

A consensus

There are a variety of cultural and psychological factors that play a role with regard to markets and morality. These include the cultural understandings of the moral limits of markets and the level of comfort that people have with the commodification of certain goods and services. Cultural understanding of what can be considered socially acceptable becomes very important in defining morality in markets. The values that people hold influences the way people understand the moral limits of markets.

Any method that is being used to allocate the goods and services needs to understand the values that it promotes in society. For example, when we look at the market for concert tickets where people stand in long queues to get them, we are essentially talking about time as a currency. People who are relatively busy might have difficulty in participating in the market. Therefore, any arrangement that goes against the values of a society cannot be applied. This debate can thus be concluded that each item requires a different kind of arrangement and there need not be limits on an exchange any commodity.

Picture Courtesy- Project Syndicate

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