We are reading What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets from Michael Sandel this week in my justice class, and we’ve had a lively discussion. Sandel’s point, which is a good one, is that markets have taken over all over American life so that we don’t have much égalité or fraternité any more. He calls it the “Skyboxification” of the world, where rich people buy passes to get to the front of the line Disneyland, cut to free-flowing traffic on congested freeways, and get shorter lines for security at airports, etc.
Many of his examples are not so trivial: The buying and selling of immigration or refugee status, the trade in organs, and paying women who are drug addicts to be sterilized.
Sandel does not help us much sorting through the cases he writes about. His major point is that market exchanges fundamentally change the nature of the human interaction: that once you pay, you feel more entitled, and less connected and obligated to the people in the interaction.
I have been writing about Sandel in Chapter 6 of the book. We’ll see how far I get in answering the critique.
My students’ reactions to the various cases were, as always, the most interesting part of the exercise. Of particular interest was their reaction to paying children to read books. That, in general, got a firm “nope.” I’m not sure what I think anymore, after the two classes. The students’ various reasonings have gotten into my own brain now, and I need to do some writing to figure out what’s going on in my own head here.
However, the being paid to read discussion made me remember Virginia Woolf’s reflections in How To Read A Book:
Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are so good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? An how is not among them? I Have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerers and lawyers and statesmen receive their rewards–their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble–the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”