Michael O’Krent is a sophomore pursuing a dual B.A. in Comparative Literature and Philosophy, Politics, and Law, in addition to an East Asian Languages and Cultures minor. Outside of his academic interests, Michael coaches high school debate at Marlborough School in Los Angeles and is the president of USC’s Apollo Men’s Chorus. He has had a passion for writing, both creative and analytical, from a young age, and he hopes to continue writing throughout his academic and professional careers.
Money. It’s everywhere, not only in our purses and our bank accounts, but also in our minds. We exchange money for goods, goods for money, and, increasingly, money for money. In fact, it has become difficult for society to recognize merit that cannot be expressed in that ultimate signifier of material value, the dollar. “[A]lmost everything,” says political theorist Michael Sandel, “is up for sale. Here are a few examples: A prison cell upgrade: $82 per night . . . Access to the car pool lane while driving solo: $8 . . . The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $6250 . . . The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000 . . . The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $150,000 . . .” (Sandel 6-7). These things don’t seem like they should be for sale, yet our society allows them to be traded. If we are willing to compromise commitments as crucial as conservation and parenthood in the name of money, then it seems that nothing is off-limits to the mighty dollar.
An intuitive way to criticize this state of affairs would be to suggest that relying on money as the bearer of value cheapens the objects and experiences it stands for. Karl Marx certainly made an argument along these lines: “The less you eat, drink, and read books; the less you go to the theater, the dance hall, the public-house, the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., — the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour – your capital. The less you are, the more you have” (Marx 118-119). He has a point. The dollar, in a sense, surpasses the goods it helps us obtain. But look again at the first sentence of this paragraph – to “cheapen” something means reducing its monetary value. Metaphors of currency and exchange permeate our society, even to the point that they describe themselves. And that is precisely the problem; focusing on money as the main signifier of worth displaces the true value of human experience.
Of course, this emphasis on money is nothing new. Even before our years had numbers, Jesus criticized those who wanted only money. In Matthew 19, a rich young man approaches Jesus, asking how he may receive eternal life. Jesus suggests the man become ascetic: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (NRSV Matthew 19:21). Jesus suggests that emphasis on material treasure is a trade of to transcendent rewards. And the young man, of course, “went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:22). The young man cannot apprehend the immaterial value Jesus offers him; only money and wealth matter to him.
Jesus seems to criticize the distribution of material wealth by suggesting that the rich young man “give [his] money to the poor” (Matthew 19:24). But the problem at hand is not that some people have too much and others too little, rather, some things ought not to be sold at all. There are things that neither Bill Gates nor an ascetic monk should be able to buy. In Sandel’s words, “when we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way” (Sandel 11). Permitting everything to be sold perpetuates the idea that only money confers value, while in reality lots of things are valuable for reasons other than their monetary cost. But our obsession with the market obscures other kinds of values (Sandel 11). When goods can be exchanged for money, there is a sort of fluidity between the good and its price. I bought the shirt for $30, so shirt = $30, implying $30 means $30 to everyone (and wealth inequality distributes goods and material satisfaction). The shirt’s value is fixed. However, there exist some goods of immeasurable value that something as universal as currency cannot capture.
That is not to say that currency as a means of exchange is intrinsically flawed. For most things, money works fine. After all, the problem of ancient barter economies persists. It is much better to reduce a shirt to material tokens than pay with, say, a goat. Money, as a universal carrier of value, ensures a “coincidence of wants:” If Macy’s doesn’t want my goat, then I can’t buy the shirt. But with money, I can always buy the shirt. This is, in economic terms, fungibility: Something fungible can always be exchanged, irrespective of the seller’s wants. Money is the most fungible object, and anything money can buy also becomes fungible. Philosophers Adrian Walsh and Tony Lynch clarify that, once we accept money as a signifier of value, it “enables us to posit equivalence claims between specific commodities: that is, two goods to which the same price is imputed can be said to be equivalent” (Walsh and Lynch 178). Here’s the catch: the same price can accurately value two different goods only if the price captures everything worth valuing in those goods. Furthermore, because money is perfectly fungible, it can only capture the fungible value of the object. Thus, when we decide a good should be for sale, we assume all the value in that good is fungible, that is, perfectly exchangeable. Sandel identifies that money has come to stand for nearly all goods, when, in fact, not all goods can be exchanged so easily.
Clever advertisers have already realized this. Think of the classic MasterCard “Priceless” commercials: “Each ad begins with images of items or services purchased (presumably with a credit card) and a price, followed at the end by a phrase identifying some intangible [object] – such as quality time with one’s children – that can’t be purchased” (Fleischer 140). The implication is that some goods should be bought and traded with money, while others should not. MasterCard advances its own brand by conceding, “There are some things that money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard” (Fleischer 140-141). Examples given by Sandel indicate that the former category has been eroded. Almost everything can be bought or sold, even “space on your forehead (or elsewhere on your body) to display commercial advertising” (Sandel 7). Assigning a price to the “priceless” goods seems to trivialize their real value. Consider this hypothetical MasterCard commercial concluding with a surrogate mother:
Romantic Dinner: $100
Wedding Ring: $2000
Photo-Op in Paris: $5
Giving Life to a Child: $6250
Certainly, this deviation from the MasterCard formula presents an interesting paradox. Surely nothing is more adverse to dollar values than life itself, yet we live in a society where everything in this ad can actually be purchased. The material-economic mentality, that someone can provide any good for the right price, damages the human-experiential aspect of life: “Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged” (Sandel 11). It’s easy to imagine why the human body ought not to be a living vehicle of brand names. In less obvious cases, though, how might the “corruption” Sandel decries occur? What “attitudes” do price tags slyly assert?
In general, focusing on the material-monetary ways of determining an item’s value can detract from the item’s true significance. Walsh and Lynch describe this disposition as a moral hazard, or a perverse incentive to cause harm:
Money-measurement does not necessarily lead us to regard commodities as substitutable, rather it encourages a psychologically corrosive tendency for us to do so. Money-measurement constitutes a ‘moral hazard’ or an ‘occasion of sin’. The moral hazard involves our attitudes. The danger is that we will use money to draw conclusions about what any good might be substituted for. So long as we accept that regarding certain goods as substitutable (in the substantive normative sense) is morally vicious, then in such cases money-measurement provides us with a moral hazard. (Walsh and Lynch 178)
That said, it is worth noting that Walsh and Lynch agree that the use of currency does not logically entail corruption; in most cases, money works fine. But when money enables us to substitute two goods whose values are not, in fact, commensurate, prices erase their deeper incommensurate meanings. Imagine that one of the two goods being exchanged is an amount of money. (The $30 shirt example will do nicely, although the form of this example applies to any purchase.) An issue would arise if the shirt has some value that cannot be transferred at the drop of a dime. Suppose Neil Armstrong wore the shirt below his spacesuit on Apollo 11. Then the shirt would not belong on a department store rack, no matter its price. It would belong at a mall though – specifically the National Mall, preferably in the Smithsonian’s vault. In this case, monetary exchange would snuff out the shirt’s historical value.
More generally, exchanging goods through money becomes problematic when some personal, social, historical, cultural, or otherwise non-commutable value inheres to the good. Exchanging goods with unexchangeable attributes damages those non-monetary value because “[o]nce money has become an end-in-itself, there is the danger of it becoming the only end, and of thereby evacuating any sense that price and ultimate value are distinct” (Walsh & Lynch 183). Once I begin thinking of the shirt on the rack as a $30 shirt, I cannot fully appreciate very much else about it. This occurs precisely because money only captures an object’s fungible value. Therefore, as long as some things defy the swipe of a MasterCard, we ought to be concerned about the ethical shortcomings of the market system. It’s not easy to define which goods contain unexchangeable value (although new shirts probably don’t). As Justice Potter Stewart said of identifying pornography, there are no general criteria, but you know it when you see it. Identifying the supra-monetary importance of a good requires critical analysis of what attitudes its sale expresses. Once we have determined that a particular item does have some kind of unexchangeable value, it becomes clear that focusing on the material-monetary ways of determining its value denigrates the item’s real importance.
Here’s an example: According to The Guardian, average London house appreciation exceeded average salary in 2013:
The recent boom in house prices means that in two thirds of London boroughs properties effectively “earned” more than the average nurse’s salary . . . Over the same period the price of properties in 17 London boroughs rose by more than the average salary of a police officer (£45,653) and a paramedic (£40,922), while in 10 areas . . . houses “earned” more than London solicitors [lawyers] who take home an average of £70,840 a year. (Osborne)
There is a nefarious undercurrent, a tacit assumption of total fungibility, necessary to understand The Guardian’s claim. In order to make house appreciation comparable to salary, one would need to sell one’s house and buy another house of the same initial value each year. The extra money from appreciation would replace salary.
This is ridiculous. Or, along more Sandelian lines, there is a hidden cost to selling a house. Suppose a London paramedic quits her job, instead deciding to sell her house every year and live off the appreciation. Perhaps her net worth would increase. But she would have to move every year, repeatedly suffering the stress and sense of displacement that comes with moving into a new home. Why go through all that trouble just for the profit? After all, a house is more than a building: It’s a home. A building can be priced, appreciated, charged to your MasterCard, sold, and exchanged. The experience of being at home cannot. No one can experience having a home for me, in my place. I cannot sell the experience of home. We retain sentimental attachments to childhood homes, often wanting to revisit our first house not because it is expensive but because of the experiences we had there. By seeing houses as commodities that can (and perhaps should) always be exchanged (in other words, as perfectly fungible), the market system purports to encompass all that houses are worth. The Guardian reifies the material-economic way of valuing houses by implying that a house may rightly be sold at any time. Everyone knows a house has personal significance, but we are less able to express that notion publicly. A House is a Home: An advertising pitch for hungry realtors, nothing more. A house is money.
However, this purely economic way of thinking affects much more serious areas of life. Without some change, we may find ourselves living in an increasingly unethical world. Sandel offers perhaps the most unsettling example of assigning monetary value to something that would best remain dollar-less:
Buy the life insurance policy of an ailing or elderly person, pay the annual premiums while the person is alive, and then collect the death benefit when he or she dies: potentially, millions (depending on the policy). This form of betting on the lives of strangers has become a $30 billion industry. The sooner the stranger dies, the more the investor makes (Sandel, 8).
This human short sale encourages investors to kill their investments – or, at the very least, to applaud their deaths. When money pervades our thoughts, nothing less than the soul of our civilization is at stake, the soul that drives every interaction within our world. If we continue to see money as the only way to value objects, then the list of lost and corrupted values in everyday life will only grow. But if money is so deeply entrenched, what can be done?
Money is in our minds we must get it out. Some things should not be for sale. Perhaps Jesus had the right idea to begin with. Again in Matthew 19, he suggests that immaterial goods surpass all others: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments . . . You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness” (Matthew 19:17-19). Commitments — ideas — values — these things cannot be sold or exchanged. The Two Tablets could be smashed at Sinai, but the Ten Commandments could not. Let us place our own value-commandments above the monetary-material tablets. Stepping out of unbridled market materialism into this new world of ideals and values brings us into uncharted territory. We must decide what may and may not be sold, which is no easy task. But exploring that terrain should be a civic priority as our polity turns its gaze inwards. Justice demands nothing less.
Fleischer, Victor. “The MasterCard IPO: Protecting the Priceless Brand.” Harvard Negotiation Law Review 12 (2007): 137-156. PDF.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. Anthony Kemp. University of Southern California. CORE 102. University of Southern California. 2014. Handout.
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. National Council of the Churches of Christ: Bible Gateway, 1989. Web.
Osborne, Hillary. “London house prices rise more than a solicitor earns in a year.” Guardian. 27 Nov 2014. Web.
Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012. Kindle Edition.
Walsh, Adrian and Lynch, Tony. The Morality of Money: An Exploration in Analytic Philosophy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008. Print.