Thursday, May 24, 2012

How The Market Ate Society


What does it mean to have a society where nothing is for free and everything is for sale? This is the fundamental question behind a new book by Michael Sandel. In a bit of an ironic twist, it turns out Sandel is a childhood friend of none other than the pope of gloablism, Thomas Friedman, who wrote a good review of his book in his column a few weeks back:
...Seen in isolation, these commercial encroachments seem innocuous enough. But Sandel sees them as signs of a bad trend: “Over the last three decades,” he states, “we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. But a ‘market society’ is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life.”

Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.

This reach of markets into every aspect of life was partly a result of the end of the cold war, he argues, when America’s victory was interpreted as a victory for unfettered markets, thus propelling the notion that markets are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. It was also the result of Americans wanting more public services than they were willing to pay taxes for, thus inviting corporations to fill in the gap with school gyms brought to you by ShopRite.

Sandel is now a renowned professor at Harvard, but we first became friends when we grew up together in Minneapolis in the 1960s. Both our fathers took us to the 1965 World Series, when the Dodgers beat the Twins in seven games. In 1965, the best tickets in Metropolitan Stadium cost $3; bleachers were $1.50. Sandel’s third-deck seat to the World Series cost $8. Today, alas, not only are most stadiums named for companies, but the wealthy now sit in skyboxes — even at college games — that cost tens of thousands of dollars a season, and hoi polloi sit out in the rain.

Throughout our society, we are losing the places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life. Sandel calls this the “skyboxification of American life,” and it is troubling. Unless the rich and poor encounter one another in everyday life, it is hard to think of ourselves as engaged in a common project. At a time when to fix our society we need to do big, hard things together, the marketization of public life becomes one more thing pulling us apart. “The great missing debate in contemporary politics,” Sandel writes, “is about the role and reach of markets.” We should be asking where markets serve the public good, and where they don’t belong, he argues. And we should be asking how to rebuild class-mixing institutions.

And in Boston Review, the author writes about makets and morality, worth reading in its entirety:

How Markets Crowd Out Morals
By Michael J. Sandel
We live in a time when almost anything can be bought and sold. Markets have come to govern our lives as never before. But are there some things that money should not be able to buy? Most people would say yes.

Consider friendship. Suppose you want more friends than you have. Would you try to buy some? Not likely. A moment’s reflection would lead you to realize that it wouldn’t work. A hired friend is not the same as a real one. You could hire people to do some of the things that friends typically do—picking up your mail when you’re out of town, looking after your children in a pinch, or, in the case of a therapist, listening to your woes and offering sympathetic advice. Until recently, you could even bolster your online popularity by hiring some good-looking “friends” for your Facebook page—for $0.99 per friend per month. (The phony-friend Web site was shut down after it emerged that the photos being used, mostly of models, were unauthorized.) Although all of these services can be bought, you can’t actually buy a friend. Somehow, the money that buys the friendship dissolves it, or turns it into something else.

This fairly obvious example offers a clue to the more challenging question that concerns us: Are there some things that money can buy but shouldn’t? Consider a good that can be bought but whose buying and selling is morally controversial—a human kidney, for example. Some people defend markets in organs for transplantation; others find such markets morally objectionable. If it’s wrong to buy a kidney, the problem is not that the money dissolves the good. The kidney will work (assuming a good match) regardless of the monetary payment. So to determine whether kidneys should or shouldn’t be up for sale, we have to engage in a moral inquiry. We have to examine the arguments for and against organ sales and determine which are more persuasive....

Although money can’t buy friendship, it can buy tokens and expressions of friendship—up to a point. As we’ve seen, converting wedding toasts and gifts into commodities doesn’t destroy them altogether. But it does diminish them. The reason it diminishes them is related to the reason that money can’t buy friends: friendship and the social practices that sustain it are constituted by certain norms, attitudes, and virtues. Commodifying these practices displaces these norms—sympathy, generosity, thoughtfulness, attentiveness—and replaces them with market values. In this sense, markets corrupt expressions of friendship.
And see the discussion here:

The "market society" where everyone is hustling and there is no other virtue besides making money and stepping over everyone else to do so, is tearing the very fabric of society apart. Commercial transactions have always been there, of course, and that's OK, but they seem to be reaching their apotheosis under the tutelage of a professional class of economists who have told us that the secret to success is to have something called "the free market" (which has always been a fiction) be the fundamental basis of all society (a view championed by libertarians especially*). But what this does ironically is undermine the very basis of trust that makes society, and by extension, the market itself - function. Is my doctor prescribing these pills because I need them or because he owns stock in the drug company? Is this college telling me there are openings in my field because there are or because it wants tuition money? If the big guys can just buy their own brand of justice, why should I trust any institutions, and so on. If I can't trust anybody, I withdraw, and without trust, society itself falls apart as people become nothing more than atomized individuals who have to be hypervigilant about constantly getting ripped off and being taken advantage of. See this lengthy post from" George Washington":

Lack of Trust – Caused by Institutional Corruption – Is Killing the Economy

Anything "not for profit" such as schools, art, etc. is derided and eliminated. It eventually leads to a hellish dystopia where all relationships are superficial and temporary, money is everything, and people need to pop pills (at gouging prices, natch) to get through the day. Welcome to the golden age of capitalism.

* I would distinguish between libertarians and anarchists primarily on this principle. Anarchists despise unearned hierarchy and tyrannical authority in all its forms - a position I have sympathy with. Libertarians simply want a vacuous market society where money equals power and might makes right, a position I find abhorrent.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, again. You've really been on a roll as of late and I am really enjoying the blog.

    This speaks precisely to the point I have been trying to make with my friends and family for the past couple of years, that nothing is sacred anymore in America except money and power. We have allowed ourselves to become commodified and the lines between our private lives, our everyday lives, and the marketplace are fading before our eyes.

    I shutter to think where this will head when the coming austerity measures really get into gear. Will we be paying for picnics in the park? Will the water fountains take VISA? If I want to jog along the waterfront, will I have to buy an annual pass?

    Not long ago, I would have laughed those ideas off as a horrible plot to some Sci-Fi movie. Now, I can actually see them being possibilities in the near future, as the State becomes starved for ever-shrinking revenue.


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