Several years ago, Air New Zealand hired thirty people to act as “cranial billboards”. Their heads were shaved and given temporary tattoos with the words “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand”. The price for two weeks of cranial advertising: a round trip ticket to New Zealand worth $1,200, or $777 in cash.
How do you feel about this? Is this perfectly fair, a straight market transaction, or has something gone wrong here?
If you think cranial billboards are OK, how about prison cell upgrades? In Santa Ana, California, non-violent offenders can pay for a clean quiet cell away from the non-paying inmates. The price? A mere $82 per night.
How about paying someone to stand in line for a Congressional hearing (c. $60) or to queue for a free ticket to see Shakespeare in Central Park (up to $125)? Or paying students to do well in exams, or HIV-carrying mothers to have long-term contraception? Or fighting foreign wars by proxy, through the private security contractors which now outnumber the American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?
These examples, and dozens of others, come from Michael Sandel’s recently published book What Money Can’t Buy. Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard. His course on justice has become one of the most widely viewed lecture series on the web.
He gave the Reith lectures in 2009, has been feted in the Guardian, and spoke at the Labour Party conference last year, so you might be forgiven for thinking that he is a man of the left. But you would be wrong: in fact this is a profoundly small-c conservative book, which should be read by all Conservatives.
As Sandel shows, there is now frighteningly little, at least in the USA, that money can’t buy. Whole areas of human life (and indeed death) have become subsumed by economic thinking, priced and marketised. The result, he argues, has not merely been to upend existing cultural norms and expectations; it has fed into, and in turn been fed by, the increasing difficulty of having an intelligent public conversation about serious issues.
In his words: “At a time when political argument consists mainly of shouting matches on cable television, partisan vitriol on talk radio, and ideological food fights on the floor of Congress, it’s hard to imagine a reasoned public debate about such moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship and other goods…
“The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument, but too little. Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about.”
Of course, the USA is not the UK, and public discourse in this country is not, or not yet, as truncated and rancorous as it is in America. And many people, including many Conservatives, may wonder whether there is really much of a problem here.
After all, what’s wrong with people exercising economic choices freely? Doesn’t the Efficient Markets Hypothesis show that this is both maximally efficient and maximally good for human welfare? Would anyone want to return to a world of national state-owned telecoms or airline monopolies? Haven’t we learned from the collapse of communism that capitalism and free markets are the only game in town?
And there may be more specific cause for concern. After all, wasn’t it Margaret Thatcher who opened up cosy cartels in finance, freed labour markets and privatised who industries? Many on the left are only too happy to try to pin the blame for our present discontents on the liberalisation of the 1980s.
However tempting these thoughts may be, in fact they perfectly exemplify Sandel’s argument. Yes, we should have a general preference for freedom of choice. But, as I have argued in my paper on Crony Capitalism, that doesn’t mean we are forced into a neo-liberal or libertarian conception of free markets, in which humans are economic automata, culture is ignored and utilitarianism rules.
Yes, Mrs Thatcher liberalised markets and busted cartels. But this came at a time when marginal tax rates were as high as 83%, and you could not take more than £50 out of the country without a permit. We can be sure that Mrs T would have vigorously denounced the way in which financial markets and debt were allowed to run rampant after 1997.
In other words, these issues are complex and serious, and demand serious and careful public consideration. We can’t address them by swapping slogans and soundbites, and the fact that so many people in politics and the media seem happy to do so does not merely miss that opportunity; it evinces a profoundly insulting attitude to the general public, which further undermines public confidence and trust.
By contrast, Sandel’s book sets its face against neo-liberalism, and celebrates human instincts, human practice and human culture. To be sure, its project is still incomplete. In particular, it does not give us a general account of why some markets fit our moral intuitions, and some do not.
A wider picture would also discuss the fascinating psychological literature on how images of money and wealth prime humans to become more selfish and individualistic, and it would address how different moral reactions are centred on ideas of autonomy, community and the sacred.
But even as its stands Sandel’s book is profoundly Burkean, and profoundly conservative. Its wealth of examples sets the scene for the much wider debate we need. And for that we should be profoundly grateful.