What money can't buy

Interesting questions, disappointing answers

The Savoy Hotel and Staff

The Savoy hotel, London. Stunning views, food by Gordon Ramsay, smartly dressed flunkies at every corner. Recently restored at a cost of £100m, it is an odd place to talk about what money can’t buy — but it happens to be where Professor Michael Sandel is staying.

He has published a new book, an extended essay incorporating a hair-raising list of the things money can buy, including space on an American woman’s head to tattoo an advertisement for a casino. His mission is to get us thinking about how markets have come to dominate our lives, and to question their moral limits.

“The most fateful change that unfolded in the past three decades was not an increase in greed,” he says. “It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

Sandel’s views matter because he has a huge and influential audience, many of them equally exercised by the question of money’s true value. When the Archbishop of Canterbury argued recently that constant resort to market principles has “radically distorted” our appreciation of the common good, he was writing in response to Sandel. The American’s previous book, Justice, has been translated into 15 languages and forms the basis of a 12-part series that has been watched by millions on television and on the internet.

Harvard professor Michael Sandel In 2009, he delivered the Reith lectures, and earlier this year he had another series on Radio 4, The Public Philosopher, in which he asked whether universities should give preference to students from poorer backgrounds, whether bankers should be paid more than nurses, and whether it is right for the NHS to bribe people to be healthy.

“Outside academia, to say that something is philosophical is to say that someone has his head in the clouds,” Sandel tells me at one point, pouring from a silver teapot. “That is not a charge that people have thrown at me.”

Indeed, with an economic crisis swirling around us, and financial markets sometimes seeming to act against the common good, his questions seem timely. Are there some things money should not be able to buy? Yes, says Sandel, and for two reasons. First, because putting a price on things can make them exclusive, and cause social division. Second, because financial incentives can corrupt. For instance, paying children to read books turns the act of reading into a chore, and may make them unwilling to read again if the money stops.

Sandel is unhappy about people paying for privileged access — to doctors, public campsites, or for speedier processing at call centres or through airport security. His concern is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the sense of shared citizenship is eroded. He calls this the “skyboxification” of life — with reference to the lavish suites at American sporting venues, accessible only by the rich. We might call it the “prawn-sandwichification” after the favoured dish of corporate hospitality here.

“Democracy does not require perfect equality,” he says. “But it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions bump up against one another in the course of ordinary life.”

It is a rousing point, only slightly undermined by meeting Sandel at a hotel where the cheapest rooms cost £295 plus Vat. He’s perfectly entitled to stay here, but is that entitlement any greater or lesser than somebody else’s entitlement to travel first class, and whiz through airport security?

“I don’t approach this with a partisan voice, but as a teacher of philosophy. I invite readers to embark on a journey of philosophical reflection. I offer a framework for thinking things through. I’m saying, here are the right questions to ask.”

He is more persuasive about how markets can have a corrupting effect. The standard economic argument, popularised by the Nobel prize winner Ken Arrow, is that commercialising something does not change or debase it. Economists believe it is possible to incentivise us, either by paying for good behaviour or penalising bad. Sandel disagrees. “Financial incentives often crowd out selfless and socially beneficial behaviour,” he says.

His best example is an Israeli daycare centre that had a problem with parents turning up late to collect their children. It introduced fines. But late pick-ups increased because parents chose to regard the fine as a fee. The daycare centre went back to the old system, but parents kept turning up late. “Once the monetary payment had eroded the moral obligation to show up on time, the old sense of responsibility proved difficult to revive,” says Sandel. “That can’t be brought back in an instant. It needs to be developed over time. “The reason that is important is that when we look at public provision and services they rest on a certain ethic: we are all in this together. And there is always the risk that privatising will displace that.”

Sandel gives plenty of other examples of inept, often ghastly market innovations. But several of the most shocking examples in his book were never put into effect, because they were blocked by public protest — such as a proposal to let adoptive parents bid for the most popular adoptees, or corporate sponsorship on police cars. So we are not quite as willing to accept the unacceptable as Sandel appears to think.

The first sponsored football shirt

He is worried about advertising “pollution” — ads appearing in places where previously it was unthinkable, not only on that woman’s forehead but all around us. Many people will agree with him. I still haven’t recovered from the proliferation of sponsorship on soccer shirts and across all aspects of my once-favourite sport. (How would office workers like to have a third-party corporate logo all over their shirts?). But the proliferation of ads, in football and more generally is a piecemeal process, a bit like the gradual disappearance of leafy streets as householders pave over front gardens to make a parking space, and thereby raise the value of their home. If enough people do the same, the street as a whole ceases to be attractive and all the houses lose value. But how to persuade any individual householder, or advertiser, not to do what their immediate self-interest suggests? Sandel looks surprised to be asked.

He says he is particularly unhappy about advertising and sponsorship at schools, but he is himself the Anne T and Robert M Bass professor of government at Harvard, and if you want to watch his Justice series online, you can’t miss the ad for POM Wonderful 100% Pure Pomegranate Juice at the start.

“Not all instances of commercialism are corrupting,” he concedes. But he draws a distinction between the types of goods in question. It is okay to pay for privileged access to “the latest iPod or consumer product”, on the one hand, but paying for access to doctors is not right. “There’s a moral difference.” (So much for Bupa’s business model.) I tell him I am not sure how, in day-to-day life, we are to make the distinction he suggests. Maybe it will be obvious — like a bad smell?

“I think there might be a bad smell,” he agrees. “A hint that we should think harder. There will be grey areas, but some examples are clear enough. If you think about voting, some people don’t use their vote, and from the standpoint of economic theory, it’s hard to explain why we don’t allow people to sell their votes to people who do want them. Why should they be forced to waste it? “From the point of view of economic efficiency, both people would be better off, and you can imagine that a market for brokers might even arise, who could benefit too. The answer I think is in the nature of the good at stake. We don’t consider a vote to be private property, but a civic duty.”

So, the clear examples are clear, but the grey areas remain grey.

Photos: ITV, BBC, and Campaignlive