Do you reward your children with money for performing well in school? Do you use the promise of an allowance to ancourage appropriate behavior in the family? These are big issues, because they take appropriate behavior and can turn the incentive to financial gain. Children growing up believing that financial gain is the reward for correct social behavior rather than seeing the intrinsic benefit.
The idea that everything has a financial value seems to have become more prevalent over the last two decades, according to a new book. In What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel, the author argues that our trend of attributing market thinking to an increasing array of behavior could be detrimental to society.
The book has not yet been released as of the time of writing this article, so I haven’t read it yet. A review in Fortune Magazine is inspiring me to pre-order the book before its release.
The author notes how Americans are now more comfortable with marketing or selling things they might have not in the past. Selling ad space on foreheads, accepting money for branded tattoos, and paying students for each book they read are a few examples of things that might have been unthinkable a few years ago. I would add that the pervasiveness of the Internet has made some of this possible, when it comes to selling ourselves. Through the democratized ability to self-publish, people can easily market themselves without much effort. If you get enough attention, some company also looking for attention would be happy to pay you to do something newsworthy, like slapping a brand on your car for a year.
With the popularity reality television, the idea that anyone can become famous — not just for fifteen minutes but for an entire television season — and wealthy (think: Kardashians) is enticing.
Here are some thoughts from the Fortune Magazine review of the book:
The price we pay for this behavior plays out in several ways, Sandel argues. First off, poorer people are impacted disproportionately by the commercialization of personal space. How many affluent people are lining up to turn their houses or bodies into billboards? In this way, the decision to sell isn’t necessarily as independent and free as it may look. In a society increasingly driven by financial power, moreover, the wealthy hold even better hands than they would otherwise. Why bother encouraging your kid to study hard if you can simply grease his path into Harvard or Yale with the promise of a massive donation?
The more emphasis we place on money in society, the more power society gives to those who have it. I don’t think that today’s plutocratic oligarchy is too much different than western society in most of recent history, however. Those with money have always had the power. We like to think of government in the United States as “of the people, for the people, by the people,” but the Founding Fathers were mostly wealthy and mostly represented the wealthy, though several did their best to be sympathetic to those who were not as fortunate.
It was difficult to leave all old-world philosophies behind; property owners were afforded more rights than those who did not own property. A subtle class distinction still persists between homeowners and renters today.
Political and societal power has always been focused on an elite group of people who have the most money. This is why social change — giving the right to vote to all adults rather than a select few, extending human rights to all citizens rather than a select few, etc. — is only successful through revolution. Those with power and money aren’t much interested in sharing.
At times, market principles put in place to make an altruistic act look even more attractive do just the opposite. Sandel cites the case of a small village in the Swiss mountains called Wolfenschiessen that was once a candidate to house a nuclear waste site. When surveyed by economists, a majority of residents said they’d accept the site as an act of civic duty. The economists then added money to the equation, offering the residents as much as $8,700 each to accept the waste site. At this point, support for the deal plummeted among the villagers. From their perspective, the cash turned a sacrifice for the greater good into a plain old bribe.
Money changes the equation, whether used to encourage someone to do the right thing — who then learns that doing the right thing should always be rewarded the compensation — or to encourage someone to do something that would otherwise give him or her pause.
Fortune Magazine laments that the book does not offer any alternatives for a way of living that does not suffer from over-commercialization. Were wealth not to provide an individual so much power, it couldn’t be used as an effective incentive for changing someone’s behavior. Is there a way for the United States to hold onto the capitalism that’s such an important piece of the success of its individuals and the nation as a whole while taking money out of the power equation?
Also, how far will you go for money? Everyone has his price. Would you sell your body parts? Your kidney for $1,000? Your foot for $100,000? Your arm for $1 million? Would you kill someone for $100,000? For $50 million? For $1 billion? Morals may stand in the way to an extent — but that extent is most likely broken at some level.
Published or updated April 20, 2012.