The Egalitarian Intuition

Michael Sandel focuses his argument about the moral limits of markets on corruption instead of fairness: markets have the potential not only to corrupt certain goods but also to corrupt us by crowding out our altruistic motivations for performing certain actions. I agree with Sandel that markets are not only a means for distributing goods and services, that they also shape our culture, foster or impede the development of human capacities, and sustain or undermine valuable forms of human relationship. But concerns about corruption offer little guidance about where and when to use markets, and where and when other social institutions are preferable.

Once we move beyond those few cases, such as friendship, where the good itself is destroyed through sale, there is no close connection between the way we value a good and its commodification through markets. A person can view food as a basic human need without rejecting the sale of spaghetti. A person who is paid as a caregiver can still feel emotional attachment to the children that she cares for. A religious person can buy or sell a bible without thinking that its price expresses her views about its intrinsic worth. In fact, one of the great virtues of a market is that it allows people who disagree about the value or meaning of goods to engage in mutually beneficial exchanges.

But even when selling a good embodies an inferior way of valuing it, this does not tell us whether or not we should allow that good to be sold. Do we really want to forbid people buying wedding toasts or giving cash presents? These activities may seem tasteless and boorish, but that hardly seems a reason for not allowing people to perform them. In a liberal society, we give people the right to be crude.

Sandel would surely agree with this, but then the question is what role the corruption argument plays in guiding policy. Fairness may be more significant. Contrast cash gifts with lobbyists buying political influence. Here the considerations of a good’s corrupting effect spill over into questions of fairness. When the wealthy few can disproportionately influence political decisions, their actions have significant consequences for others.

Sandel’s claim about the market’s dampening effects on altruistic motivation, while important, does not tell us where the limits of markets lie. The crowding-out argument points to the need for maintaining some non-market sector where people can relate to each other on terms outside the cash nexus, a place where people can exercise their civic virtues. But which goods should be in that sector? If we ask which goods and services the state or voluntary associations should provide, I doubt that we will get much help in answering that question by appealing to concerns about corruption. How should we distribute housing? Transportation? Blood? To answer these questions, we will want to know a lot more about the empirical effects of using a market in each of these cases. For example, if the supply of a needed good is highly elastic, and if the introduction of a market radically increases supply, then there will be a strong prima facie case for allowing it. If, on the other hand, the supply of the good is fixed, we may want to use other mechanisms to distribute it.

Debating the place of the market is less about the value of goods than about inequality.

We will also want to know about the effects of particular markets on social equality, on the ability of people to relate to one another as equals. It often seems that inequality, not the corruption of value, drives our response to particular markets. Take the example of kidney markets. Recently the New York Times reported that 60 people were linked in the longest chain of kidney transplants ever constructed. What is the difference between an ordinary market and this trading system in which people barter organs on behalf of loved ones? The morally salient difference is that, in the kidney exchange system, people could not use money to get access to an organ: the standing of rich and poor were thereby equalized. That people respond very differently to kidney chains and kidney markets suggests that there is an egalitarian intuition behind the prohibition on organ trading, not a view about the meaning of body parts. Indeed, the central debates in our society today about the place of the market—debates about health care, education, and political influence—do not so much raise questions about the meaning of these specific goods as about inequality.

As Americans debate the role of government and the size of the welfare state, the question of where and when markets are appropriate looms large. Its difficulties notwithstanding, Sandel’s analysis illuminates popular resistance to pricing certain goods and powerfully underscores why this debate should not be left only to economists.