TOPICS > Economy

‘What Money Can’t Buy’ and What it Shouldn’t Buy

June 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
While most of our everyday transactions are driven by the marketplace, are there some things money shouldn't be able to buy -- a spot in line, maybe a human life? As part of his Making Sen$e of financial news series, Paul Solman speaks with Harvard professor Michael Sandel about his new book, "What Money Can't Buy."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, is it wrong to pay to get to the head of the line?

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman explores that question and some related ones in a conversation with the author of a new book.

It’s part of Paul’s regular reporting Making Sense of financial news.

WOMAN: Do I think I should be able to bid for a baby? I’m not — sure.

(LAUGHTER)

WOMAN: It’s a market.

PAUL SOLMAN: Michael Sandel has been called one of the most prominent college professors in America for his course “Justice,” now online after having been taken by some 25 percent of all Harvard undergrads over the past two decades.

Sandel orchestrates a discussion among the course’s 1,000 students, mixing case studies with moral stalwarts from Aristotle to John Rawls.

Early in the term, Sandel asks students if everything should be for sale, mediated by the marketplace, that is, like the value of a human life, which, posited at $200,000 in one case study, student Julia Roto thought far too low.

MICHAEL SANDEL, author, “What Money Can’t Buy”: What do you think would be a more accurate number?

STUDENT: I don’t think I could give a number. I think that this sort of analysis shouldn’t be applied to issues of human life.

PAUL SOLMAN: And thus the theme of Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy,” or shouldn’t be able to buy, as he explained in an interview at Harvard’s student-run Phillips Brooks House.

Michael Sandel, welcome.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Good to be here.

PAUL SOLMAN: What bothers you about what’s been happening to our market economy?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Over the last three decades, we’ve actually drifted, without quite realizing it, from having a market economy to becoming a market society.

And the difference is this: A market economy is a tool, a valuable and effective tool, for organizing productive activity. But a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. It’s a way of life where market values seep into almost every sphere of life, and sometimes crowd out or corrode important values, non-market values.

PAUL SOLMAN: Let’s get down to cases: queuing, buying your place in line.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Right.

PAUL SOLMAN: What’s wrong with that?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Well, it’s interesting to notice that, over the past three decades, there are many aspects of life where you can pay your way to the head of the line.

In airports, those long lines of security checkpoints, if you’re flying on an expensive ticket, you can go to the head of the line. Even if you’re flying coach, the airlines will sell you, as an a la carte perk, the right to go to the head of the line for the security check.

PAUL SOLMAN: Hey, at Logan Airport, I have a gold passport card right here, where — I think it was $200 — and I get to park on the third level of central parking, and I have to confess, I love that.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Okay.

But here’s the question. Is there a difference between paying for a service, a better parking place, or even paying to board the airplane first, so you get access to the overhead bin — that’s a service — and paying to go to the head of the queue for security checks, which, after all, are to provide for national security to prevent terrorism on airplanes? Is that paying for a service or is that paying for a public good?

PAUL SOLMAN: So you’re the moral philosopher. Is it okay for me and members of the audience to buy the VIP pass that gets me special access to parking at Boston’s airport?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Yes, it’s fine, Paul. I’m not here to give a moral sermon about every instance of — of paying more for a service.

But it’s happening in other parts of our social life, where it does matter. Take a small example. In Washington, D.C., there are line-standing companies. They have arisen because the seats are limited for congressional hearings. Often, the lines are long. Lobbyists want to attend, but they don’t like standing in a very long line, maybe overnight.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, their time is very valuable.

MICHAEL SANDEL: So what they do is they go to line-standing companies, and they — those companies hire homeless people and others, pay them an hourly rate to stand in those long lines until just before the hearing. The same line-standing companies will get you a line-stander at the Supreme Court if you want to hear an oral argument that’s very popular.

Now, different, isn’t it, from a preferred parking place or boarding the plane early?

PAUL SOLMAN: All right, I have an intuition that it’s not right somehow to sell tickets to congressional hearings. But I’m not exactly sure why it’s wrong, only that it sounds sort of distasteful.

MICHAEL SANDEL: It’s wrong for two reasons. One is about equal access.

In a democratic society, everyone should have equal access to representative government, to congressional hearings, to Supreme Court arguments. The other reason it’s wrong is that it demeans representative government. It’s demeaning to the whole idea of government in the name of the public good to have ticket scalpers hawking seats in the Appropriations Committee.

LARRY DAVID, actor: Oh, you should see the traffic. The only thing moving is the carpool lane.

PAUL SOLMAN: In his book, Sandel mentions an episode on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” where Larry David is stuck in traffic.

LARRY DAVID: I’m not going to use the carpool lane by myself, because I — I don’t want to.

PAUL SOLMAN: At this point, opportunity knocks.

ACTRESS: Hey, daddy, you want a date with mama?

LARRY DAVID: Get in the car.

MICHAEL SANDEL: And he got there on time.

This was a novel use of a market mechanism to gain access to a carpool lane. But, today, in many cities, Larry David would not have to bother hiring a prostitute to ride in the seat next to him. He and everyone else can simply pay to ride in the fast lane solo, provided you pay the fee.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you have a problem with that, or not? You’d outlaw that, or you wouldn’t?

MICHAEL SANDEL: I don’t think it’s objectionable by itself. I wouldn’t ban it.

But the question that worries me is, when almost everything in our public life, not just access to the fast lane, is sold off to the highest bidder, something is lost. Money comes to matter more and more in our society. And against the background of rising inequality, that takes a toll on the commonality of our civic life.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s where you’re coming from with all of this?

MICHAEL SANDEL: Yes. My concern is with the accumulated effect. Are we cheapening important social goods and civic goods that are worth caring about?

PAUL SOLMAN: Michael Sandel, thanks very much.

MICHAEL SANDEL: Thank you, Paul.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Check back to our website tomorrow, when we will have more from Paul’s conversation with Michael Sandel, including a look at online bets that only pay out once someone dies.