Saturday, June 02, 2012

markets and morals?

NYTimes | Does it bother you that an online casino paid a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education, $10,000 to tattoo its Web site on her forehead?

Or that Project Prevention, a charity, pays women with drug or alcohol addictions $300 cash to get sterilized or undertake long-term contraception? Some 4,100 women have accepted this offer.

Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, cites those examples in “What Money Can’t Buy,” his important and thoughtful new book. He argues that in recent years we have been slipping without much reflection into relying upon markets in ways that undermine the fairness of our society.

That’s one of the underlying battles this campaign year. Many Republicans, Mitt Romney included, have a deep faith in the ability of laissez-faire markets to create optimal solutions.

There’s something to that faith because markets, indeed, tend to be efficient. Pollution taxes are widely accepted as often preferable than rigid regulations on pollutants. It may also make sense to sell advertising on the sides of public buses, perhaps even to sell naming rights to subway stations.

Still, how far do we want to go down this path?

Is it right that prisoners in Santa Ana, Calif., can pay $90 per night for an upgrade to a cleaner, nicer jail cell?

Should the United States really sell immigration visas? A $500,000 investment will buy foreigners the right to immigrate.

hould Massachusetts have gone ahead with a proposal to sell naming rights to its state parks? The Boston Globe wondered in 2003 whether Walden Pond might become Wal-Mart Pond.

Should strapped towns accept virtually free police cars that come laden with advertising on the sides? Such a deal was negotiated and then ultimately collapsed, but at least one town does sell advertising on its police cars.

“The marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”

“Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”