What money can’t buy

‘Everything has a price.’ How far do we take that maxim? The American experience is a warning to us innocent Europeans.

Consider Harvard professor and Reith lecturer Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy, where he explores how everything (almost) is monetised in today’s world, and especially so in the USA. How far should markets invade ‘family life, friendship, sex, procreation, health, education, nature, art, citizenship, sports, and the way we contend with the prospect of death’?

Take, for example (American examples, but a warning to the rest of us) buying insurance on other people’s lives, so that you profit when they die, or advertising in schools, directly to children, burgers and sweets, and more, heedless of health risks. Money rules, so that if you’re poor you miss out – no level-playing field.

We devalue what we monetise, we devalue education, devalue sport, when ‘sky boxes’ (high-priced seats at stadiums) separate the affluent from the ordinary supporter (once rich and poor pitched into together in baseball crowds), devalue public service when police cars carry ads, and the fire service put ads on fire hydrants …

‘In 1983, US companies spent $100 million advertising to children. In 2005′ they spent $16.8 billion.’ Education in Sandel’s mind, and mine, is to encourage critical reflection, advertising is to recruit consumers. Two radically different functions, which we keep rigorously apart in the UK. Though advertising creeps in in many other places, many other ways

The USA is a warning regarding where ‘market triumphalism’, as Sandel calls it, can take us, at a time ‘when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance’. That’s a subject in itself.

And value spreads right up the chain. In the UK as in the USA. We monetise elections – he who pays the most dominates the news and bludgeons opinion. Many would limit government action and expenditure because it functions to interfere with a pure economic process – there is no sentimentality here. The only compassion lies in economic value: as the most efficient system it’s the most compassionate.

Ultimately I wonder if we’ve might we put a value on God. We put a high value on self, and all the possessions that define our identity, and the next step would be a God who we identify with our self and aspirations. The American Bible Belt already goes a long way in that direction.

Remember indulgences, paying to offset the wages of sin, and building chantry chapels and paying for others to pray for your soul.

Everything, but everything, can be priced.

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