The limits of what money can buy


The easyJet flight to London was only slightly delayed by snow. Still, I took advantage of the opportunity to push ahead of other impatient passengers and settle down to read the recent book by American philosopher Michael SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy. I had paid easyJet €12 for the privilege of speedy boarding.

Sandel queries the legitimacy of such transactions. In a market economy, should there be things that money just cannot buy? Should there be markets for sperm, surrogate motherhood or transplant organs? Should lobbyists be able to pay people to stand in line for them to secure admission to popular congressional hearings? Should we try to outlaw prostitution? Is it proper to require students to attend classes in the Al Capone lecture theatre if Capone paid generously for the naming rights? Should these students be allowed to tattoo their forehead with “Visit New Zealand” in return for a contribution to their tuition fees?

Even the most committed believer in the free market is reluctant to agree that contracts of slavery should be legally enforceable. But the purchase of a human kidney from a poor donor is presumptively advantageous to both parties and harmful to no one else. Where, and why, does the argument that voluntary transactions are mutually beneficial break down?

Sandel offers an answer. “When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way.”

While most people would agree with that proposition, it does not take us very far. What criteria determine which goods are properly valued in this way and which not? Sandel provides an intriguing list of the many kinds of transaction that most people find distasteful, but not a principled rationale against which to test our intuitions. Should easyJet offer me speedy boarding, and should I take advantage of it?

The reasons for distaste seem to fall into a few broad categories. Probably we do not believe the contract of enslavement is truly voluntary. The prospective slave is bemused, or in a hurry, or a state of desperation. But similar arguments would strike down a lot of transactions. Many widely distributed financial products would not be bought by anyone who understood them. And how often have you read the licence conditions on your new software?

The slave contract is unacceptable for the more fundamental reason that it affronts human dignity. So does the sale of transplant organs and the forehead tattoo. These deals violate Immanuel Kant’s maxim that we treat individuals as ends not instruments. But there are obvious grey areas. What of the paid queue standers? And why do we think ticket scalping is more offensive when the tickets provide free entry to a papal mass than paid admission to a Bruce Springsteen concert?

Other transactions disturb social solidarity. The popularity of Britain’s National Health Service seems to rest on a perception that in illness “we are all in this together”. So it is best if we do not see paying patients being wheeled ahead of us into the operating theatre from their private rooms.

Other transactions are aesthetically unpleasant. We might be able to stomach the Al Capone lecture theatre but draw the line at placing a large illuminated statue of Capone in the foyer. We would prefer not to have our fire attended by an engine that says Kentucky Fried Chicken on the side, even if the hoses it brings extinguish our fire. For the same reasons, we do not want to see billboards beside country roads or have the street where we live renamed Coca-Cola Boulevard.

Sadly, my transaction with easyJet does not even meet the criterion of doing no harm to other people. I strode past more than one harassed family, toddlers in tow, who would experience slower boarding as a result of my €12 investment. But a family weekending in Nice does not really have a strong claim on my sympathy. I consoled myself with an observation from American founding father and polymath Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

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