Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Money, markets and our morality

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Te Kauwhata Lotto winner Trevor is probably right when he says his $26 million won't buy him happiness. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Te Kauwhata Lotto winner Trevor is probably right when he says his $26 million won't buy him happiness. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Trevor from Te Kauwhata thinks his $26 million lotto winnings won't buy him love or happiness, and he's probably right, but there's no doubt his newfound wealth has raised his stocks on the marriage market.

Money changes everything, and not always in a good way. Trevor may never know if potential mates are drawn to his side by love of him or love of his big bank balance. Still, he can always console himself by buying political influence - although, as Kim Dotcom might tell him, bought relationships are a poor imitation of the real thing.

We live in a world where almost everything is up for sale, as the celebrated Harvard professor and philosopher Michael Sandel observes in his new book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

According to Sandel, the most fateful change of the past three decades was not the growth of greed but the reach of markets and market values into every aspect of our lives.

Which is fine if we're happy to live in the moral-free zone of the market.

As Sandel writes: "If someone is willing to pay for sex or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is, 'How much?' Markets don't wag fingers. They don't discriminate between admirable preferences and base ones."

This is the legacy of "an era of market triumphalism" - a heady time of market faith and deregulation that began in the 1980s when free market apostles "proclaimed that markets, not governments, held the key to prosperity and freedom".

That faith remains undimmed, even after the financial crisis of 2008. As Sandel notes, the biggest market failure of the past 80 years discredited government rather than banks, and did not prompt a fundamental rethinking of the proper place of markets in our lives. Despite the widespread sense that markets had become detached from morals, the moral reckoning never came.

But as we drift into becoming market societies where everything is commodified, where public goods are increasingly privatised and the influence of money reaches into every aspect of our lives, it's time to ask whether this is what we want.

Why should we worry if schools, hospitals, prisons and the military are increasingly privatised and commercialised? What does it matter if there's a market for the insurance policies of wealthy old people and the terminally ill, which promise a higher return the sooner they die? What about "a system of campaign finance [as in the US] that comes close to permitting the buying and selling of elections"? Or the outsourcing of surrogacy to women in developing nations? Should we be selling the right to pollute? Or the right to immigrate to those who have money to invest while shutting the door to desperate refugees fleeing persecution or starvation?

If markets have replaced morality, the fault is ours. Our reluctance to bring moral and spiritual convictions into the public square, to debate contested notions of the good life, Sandel argues, has left "a moral vacancy" which markets have filled for us. It has to be said, too, that our unwillingness to fund our public goods has left them vulnerable to market incursions and the corrosive effect of money.

Why should we care?

The first reason is inequality, Sandel argues: "[As] money comes to buy more and more - political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighbourhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones - the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger."

Indeed, "the commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more".

The second reason is corruption. We corrupt a good, an activity, or a social practice, Sandel explains, when we turn it into a commodity to be bought or sold. Markets don't only allocate goods, "they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged". Money changes our attitudes, and crowds out moral instincts.

For example, when economists surveyed residents in a village in Switzerland about whether they'd vote to accept a nuclear waste repository in their community if government decided to build it there, a slim majority said yes. But when the economists added the sweetener of an annual monetary payment, the support halved.

Evidently, people were willing to bear the burden of a nuclear waste site in their midst out of a sense of civic duty, but not when they were offered what they saw as a bribe. For many, "the prospect of a private payoff transformed a civic question into a pecuniary one. The intrusion of market norms crowded out their sense of civic duty".

In another example, a day-care centre which introduced a "late fee" to discourage parents picking up their children after closing time found the incidence of late pickups nearly doubled. Why? Parents treated the extra payment as a fee they were willing to pay, rather than a fine for not meeting their obligations. The fee "stripped the sense of moral duty out of the equation". Not only that, but when the day-care centre eliminated the fine, the new, elevated rate of late arrivals persisted.

Sandel: "Once the monetary payment had eroded the moral obligation to show up on time, the old sense of responsibility proved difficult to revive."

- NZ Herald

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