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.

Argument and counter-argument – the beauty of debate

I seem to be quoting the Daily Telegraph a lot recently, which is worrying.

I was once a Guardian reader, disgruntled long ago, really from the moment the paper moved south and lost its link to the Manchester liberal tradition. I am of course from Manchester, and biased.

One friend from my college days has me down as some kind of Trotskyite, and I’m loathe to disillusion him, as it’s good for my ego, though I could do without the ice axe.

Where do I stand? If you’ve read other posts of mine you’ll know that I’m an arch-parliamentarian. And who or what is that?  (Not a latter-day Civil War Puritan!)

Michael Sandel in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ refers to ‘the parlous state of public discourse’, with particular reference to the USA, but it also to a lesser degree applies here in the UK. Thinking of Congress ‘it’s hard (Sandel argues) to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods’. 

Thankfully we haven’t got that far, and parliament can still be a place for serious debate.

But outside of parliament, opinions can be dismissive, personalised, and especially on social media, downright nasty. ‘Some,’ to quote Sandel, ‘see in our politics a surfeit of moral conviction.’ People believe too deeply. Sandel, and I’m with him on this, takes a different view: ‘The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument, but too little.’

We’re used to big opinions but we’re frightened of any debate about moral issues and even more so spiritual issues, and when we do have them, as the BBC does on Sunday mornings, the debate is boxed in and artificial – as if moral issues need a forum, and can’t simply be part of everyday discourse.

Moral debate goes hand in hand with measured debate. Moral positions convince no-one if they’re asserted. Listening to the other side, argument and counter-argument, avoiding posturing, keeping open minds….

I mentioned mind-maps in an earlier blog, where arguments are laid out in a form where we can begin to make judgements. Where there are moral issues involved, discussing welfare issues, for example, we need them addressed, not skimped, a degree of balance, different viewpoints.  We’re living in time when economic arguments, masquerading as moral, trump moral too often.

Not too much to ask, but it doesn’t always make for good viewing. TV and media assume that what we want is a good scrap, and sometimes we do. But we also want to be well-informed, on facts and opinions – the two kept separate. 

Parliament can be and needs to be a model for such debate. It has a history as a great debating chamber, probably the greatest of all.

It can also be a bear-pit – and that makes for a good mix.