On the internet there is a site called Professional Friends. The going rate for a rented friend is around £10 an hour. How do you feel about hiring friendship? This a is a question which Michael Sandel, who is a philosophy professor at Harvard, asked at an Intelligence Squared lecture recently. The topic he was exploring was whether market economics is a tool at our service in society or whether it has invaded society in such a way that there is little which cannot be valued in monetary terms.
This could scarcely be more topical, as Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford pointed out recently. MPs’ expenses, phone mis-selling, the Libor crisis and broad financial disaster are among the signs that the market is no longer made for man. Rather, man is becoming slave to the market.
If you are familiar with Sandel’s work you will know that he holds that people should do philosophy rather than merely study it. Above all, he believes that we should all take part in public discourse about how we want our society to be and what values should be respected. So, let’s take Sandel’s lead, and ask ourselves some questions.
On your birthday last week the card from your daughter contained a poem she had written. It wasn’t Shakespeare but the sentiment was pleasing and she had taken trouble to get the metre and the rhyme. That evening her revolting younger brother sneaked that she had paid half her pocket money to a clever friend to compose it for her. Does that affect the value of her offering?
Some childcare centres had problems with mums making late pick-ups, thus obliging staff to stay on. The obvious solution was to fine tardy mothers. Would this work?
In fact, matters became worse. It appears that mums, who felt at least a little guilty at inconveniencing child minders, felt no guilt at all after being fined. They simply mentally converted fines into fees. No need to feel guilty about that. When the fines were later withdrawn, the mothers’ outlook did not revert. It seems as if the payment of “fines” had permanently sullied the whole transaction.
Two groups of lawyers were asked to provide legal services for members of an old-age charity. One group was offered a discounted hourly rate. The other was asked to provide their services for free. One group refused, the other agreed. Which?
I know the answer to this. At one time in my life I was doing professional public speaking. If I was asked by a charity which could not afford my four-figure fee, I preferred to speak for nothing rather than a lower fee. I did not want to see my value lowered in the market.
In our family we chose to give gifts of money related to age. This was very acceptable since, unlike us, the children and the grandchildren knew what they wanted. But any of our adult friends would feel surprised and perhaps hurt if we gave them money rather than a conventional present, no matter how ill-chosen. Why should this be so? An interesting study calculated that a chosen present was valued by the recipient on average at some 20 per cent less than the cash cost.
Suppose that you badly need tickets for an important show and they are sold out. How much extra would you pay to a seller on the internet to get them? If you pay anything extra you are encouraging a black market which means that your money buys you privilege not open to others. Similarly, if you could buy a ticket which would enable you to go to the front of a bus queue, ahead of the little old ladies, would you do so? Either of those facilities will be at the expense of others.
You have a child approaching the end of primary school. You know that final tests will influence which stream she will be in at secondary level. But your child is easily distracted from revision. Would it be right to offer a financial bribe to get the errant nose to the grindstone?
To your disappointment your child cannot be persuaded to read. In fact, he is not even inclined to try. You decide to offer him £2 for every book he reads – and you will check this with a little questionnaire. Do you think this might be a good way to inculcate the reading habit?
Is it beneficial to bribe children to work hard or to read books, or do you think that education is not a commodity to be bought or sold? You might think about this if your child goes to a private school or needs special coaching to pass an exam.
If you have worked your way through those questions (based on, but not always identical to, Sandel’s) you will have a clearer view about your attitudes to the value and the relevance of the market. And you may, as I did, discover inconsistencies in your values or your reasoning. As Sandel said to his Harvard students (I summarise), once you have started serious moral thinking you will never be the same again.
In a later part of his book What Money Can’t Buy Sandel examines more general subjects such as being paid for the use of one’s name. While this may be more remote I should be sorry to have missed the poverty-stricken lady who, for a fee, had an advertisement tattooed on her forehead or the baseball player whose spent chewing gum was sold for $10,000 (£6,400).
Does our society know the price of everything and the value of nothing? Is our slide into a market economy an inevitable corruption of society’s values? Have we built a society in which we should expect public dishonesty?
What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel is published by Allen Lane, priced £20