Sandel and ‘Crowding Out’

One of the arguments Michael Sandel makes in his new book What Money Can’t Buy is that what he calls “market values,” which include “the logic of buying and selling” (6 and passim), can, once introduced, crowd out other values. A striking example he offers is what happened at some child-care centers in Israel.

Apparently some parents were late picking up their kids. Pleading with them did not help, and it was costing the child-care centers money because they had to keep staff on to watch children while waiting for tardy parents. So the centers decided to adopt a new policy: if you’re late, we’re going to fine you. Sandel: “What do you suppose happened? Late pickups actually increased” (64). He explains:

Introducing the monetary payment changed the norms. Before, parents who came late felt guilty; they were imposing an inconvenience on the teachers. Now parents considered a late pickup as a service for which they were willing to pay. They treated the fine as if it were a fee. Rather than imposing on the teacher, they were simply paying him or her to work longer. (64-5)

Sandel gives other examples of similar transformations in social dynamics from fines to fees, including speeding tickets with progressive rates depending on speed, fines in China for having too many children, pollution permits and fines, carbon offsets, rhino hunting in Kenya, shooting walruses in Canada, and paying kids to read books or get good grades (chap. 2). His argument is that when things are put up for sale, “market values” come to dominate where often times “moral values” should dominate instead. As he puts it, “markets crowd out morals.”

He has a point. For example, he claims that one objection to adult consensual prostitution is based not on whether the consent was in fact voluntary, but rather on the “grounds that it is degrading to women, whether or not they are forced into it”; it moreover “promotes bad attitudes toward sex” (112). I would argue that if prostitution degrades women, it also degrades men: I see no asymmetry there.

On the other hand, what follows from the claim? After all, lots and lots of aspects of human behavior are affected differently when they are put in the context of a cash transaction rather than something else—but sometimes that is perfectly appropriate. The parents are, after all, paying the child care centers for a service, aren’t they? The john is paying the prostitute for a service, right? Sandel gives us no clear reason why in some places that is appropriate and in some places not, other than to say that sometimes “we need to ask what [moral] norms should govern” the social dynamics in question (112). Well, of course. But Sandel does not tell us what those norms are or when they are appropriate, and thus no clear reason why we should worry about markets crowding out other considerations.

Consider these questions:

1. Does sex before marriage crowd out the right kind of love in the relationship?

2. Does buying one’s food crowd out the right kind of pleasure and joy in eating that accrues when one makes one’s own food?

3. Does drinking coffee or 5-Hour Energy or taking cocaine crowd out the true or authentic performance you would otherwise have given?

Is it impossible to “go back” once you start down these roads, as Sandel claims about money in other areas?

The upshot of Sandel’s argument seems to be that we should prohibit the introduction of “market values” where they do not properly belong, on the grounds that allowing them in “degrades,” “corrupts,” or does not properly respect the sanctity involved. If so, does that mean we should prohibit other things too, like those listed above, on similar grounds? Where would this stop, exactly, and how could we ensure that the list of prohibited kinds of cash transactions are not merely a list of Sandel’s (or someone else’s) personal preferences?

3 thoughts on “Sandel and ‘Crowding Out’

  1. I’d answer “yes” to your questions, but the natural response to the “we should ban markets from X for moral reasons” is to point out that banning things also crowds out morality, too. That which is not freely-chosen is not moral.

  2. Sociologist Viviana Zelizer has probably done the most interesting work on these sorts of issues. I highly recommend her latest book (its a collection of her major works with new comments) for anyone interested in the relationship between markets and morals. She argues that markets are never truly disembedded from morals and advocates a “circuits of commerce” approach to explore how people moralize markets. Kieran Healy and Rene Almeling also have great books.

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