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What Money Can’t Buy

May 30, 2013
Michael Sandel at Sydney Opera House

Michael Sandel at the Sydney Opera House (from SWF Facebook page)

Should kids be paid to study? How about giving them $2 for every book they read?

Michael Sandel posed this question at the Sydney Writers Festival last week, and the audience filling the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Opera House waved their arms and called out their responses, arguing for or against.

Sandel selected two enthusiastic responders and directed them to microphones in the aisles on opposite sides of the hall. “Paying children from deprived backgrounds would kill two birds with one stone,” Daniel said. “It does something about poverty, and it gets them motivated to study.”

Siobhan was having none of that. “Money corrupts,” she declared. “What we need are good teachers who can inspire their students to read.”

“Society is already corrupted by poverty,” countered Daniel. “If we can get kids reading by paying them, then they’ll find it rewarding for its own sake.”

“No,” cried Siobhan. “All they’ll learn is that they only have to do things if they get paid. Money becomes their only motivation.”

Sandel is a superb teacher. For an hour he had the audience totally engaged in the dilemmas he posed for us. Is it okay to pay to go to the head of the queue? How would you feel if your best man gave a magnificent speech, moving wedding guests to tears and laughter, and later you found out he’d bought the speech online? Should a child be paid a dollar for writing a thank you card to her grandma?

Sandel gave the example of a proposed nuclear waste site near a Swiss village. Locals were told that the country needed the power, and that this was the most suitable site to store the waste. A survey found that 51% of them agreed to the proposal. Then they were offered 6000 Euro each for having the waste site near the village, and surveyed again. This time only 25% said yes. They no longer saw it as a civic duty, and reacted against the idea of being bribed.

In another example, a daycare centre had a problem with parents collecting their children late, so they imposed a fine for late pick-ups. This resulted in parents coming even later. Previously they had felt guilty when they were late, but now they saw the payment as a fee for baby-sitting.

These examples illustrate how matters previously considered as civic duties or moral obligations are being shifted into the marketplace. Perhaps because we shrink from difficult ethical questions, we outsource our moral judgements to the supposedly neutral market and let it decide for us. We are moving from a market economy to a market society.

As well as commodification, he is worried about stratification, where people from different socio-economic levels no longer bump up against one another. Instead of sharing tasks and sacrifices, those who have more wealth can pay to opt out. This also applies on a global scale. For example, tradable carbon schemes allow richer countries to outsource their moral responsibility, that is, it gives them a licence to continue polluting. Sandel prefers a carbon tax because it does not outsource the responsibility of shared sacrifice.

Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there some things that money cannot, or should not, buy?

Michael Sandel is a political philosopher and a Harvard professor, and is well-known for his online course on justice. His latest book is What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Sydney Writers Festival

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 1:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, I’ve heard this man speak on radio and what he says is very interesting…

    • Bryce permalink*
      May 30, 2013 1:42 pm

      Yes, and for me, not only what he said, but also his clarity and the way he engaged and interacted with such a large audience. Memorable.

  2. May 30, 2013 9:57 pm

    And thanks from me Bryce … I remember reading about the Day Care situation. But that Swiss nuclear site one is intriguing. And then the paying to opt out issue. I remember some of the better off parents at a pre-school wanting to pay more money rather than work to fundraise, such as through a fete. They rather missed the point that the fundraising was only one part of the whole enterprise … another part was the working together, the socialising. All this is to say … interesting stuff with no simple or easy answer.

    • Bryce permalink*
      May 31, 2013 9:35 am

      Certainly no simple or easy answers. Listening to Siobhan and Daniel (both very articulate) I found it very difficult to think through what would be best for children, despite already having a prejudice against the “market society”.

      • May 31, 2013 10:02 am

        It’s very tricky … To what degree do you buy into it as it’s the world your children are in and to what degree do you lead them elsewhere and perhaps leave them ostracised!

        On a sort of related matter, I was horrified to be driving yesterday evening at peak hour time behind a car in which the two children in the back seat were watching a cartoon on screens embedded into the back of the front are, like in a plane. Our commutes here in my city are pretty small …. Surely that’s time for a little chat? Though maybe it results in safer driving … No squabbling kids, no having to handle the day’s emotions? Hmmm …

  3. June 2, 2013 1:25 pm

    Um, the “philosopher’s” argument makes no sense.

    Why would the children get paid by the people who are offering them a service? That’s precisely backwards.

    That would be like a grocery store paying customers for visiting the store.

    If Sandel meant to ask, “what if we incentivized learning?” the answer is we already do – it’s called a higher GPA, chances for scholarships, recommendation letters, references, and of course knowledge. Students don’t need to get paid to do it: If they don’t study, they fail; if they do study, they succeed.

    This has nothing to do with free markets – it just has to do with logic.

    • Bryce permalink*
      June 3, 2013 8:49 am

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that there are already incentives for learning, but these incentives don’t always work well for children from deprived backgrounds, hence the suggestion by some (not Sandel) that children be paid to read. Sandel uses this as an example of his concern about the increasing monetization of society. Maybe one approach is to look at the incentives you mention and try to redesign them, or create new ones, that work better for children from poorer families.

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