Is Everything For Sale, And If So, Why?

Is everything for sale in America?  Have we reached the point where the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar has become too all-consuming?

An article in MarketWatch, published by The Wall Street Journal, discusses the teaching of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of the recent book What Money Can’t Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  Sandel posits that at some point over the past 30 years America crossed the line from a market economy to a “market society” in which virtually everything, such as naming rights to public buildings, ad space in school cafeterias, and carbon offsets, is for sale to the highest bidder.  A market economy is a tool for organizing activity in the most productive way, but a market society is one in which market values — rather than morals, ethics, religion, or other non-money-oriented concepts or belief systems — intrudes upon and governs our relationships and our behavior generally.

I’m a big fan of capitalism as an economic system.  Human history has proven that it is the most fair and effective way of allowing people to control their own destinies and create wealth, and no other system even comes close.  But Sandel has a point — there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.  When capitalism crosses those lines, the effect is corrupting and defeating of any selfless impulses that motivated the activity in the first place.  When public money is used to erect a public building and the structure is named after whichever large corporation or wealthy individual ponies up the most money for the naming rights, it detracts from the important public, communal element of the endeavor.  When a couple decides to have a child but pays a hefty price to a clinic to try to genetically engineer the perfect offspring, what are they really trying to accomplish?

I disagree with Sandel on one fundamental point.  He is quoted in the article as saying:  “We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.”  I don’t buy that — no pun intended.  I think part of the witches’ brew of developments that is leading us down the road to perdition is the notion that the public is never to blame for anything, that we are trapped and buffeted by forces beyond our control.  I think people can make a difference and can act morally and ethically; the thousands of acts of kindness and human decency that occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing, where strangers acted purely out of concern for their fellow man rather than concern for the bottom line, prove it.  Our challenge is to bring more, much more, of that same sense of ethical behavior to the public arena and to our everyday lives.