What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

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9780374203030: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities? Selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?
In What Money Can't Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes on one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don't belong? What are the moral limits of markets?
In recent decades, market values have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life―medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations. Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Is this where we want to be?
In his New York Times bestseller Justice, Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating, with clarity and verve, the hard moral questions we confront in our everyday lives. Now, in What Money Can't Buy, he provokes an essential discussion that we, in our market-driven age, need to have: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society―and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets don't honor and that money can't buy?

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About the Author:

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. His work has been the subject of television series on PBS and the BBC. His most recent book is the international bestseller Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Jumping the Queue
 

Nobody likes to wait in line. Sometimes you can pay to jump the queue. It’s long been known that, in fancy restaurants, a handsome tip to the maître d’ can shorten the wait on a busy night. Such tips are quasi bribes and handled discreetly. No sign in the window announces immediate seating for anyone willing to slip the host a fifty-dollar bill. But in recent years, selling the right to cut in line has come out of the shadows and become a familiar practice.
FAST TRACK
Long lines at airport security checkpoints make air travel an ordeal. But not everyone has to wait in the serpentine queues. Those who buy first-class or business-class tickets can use priority lanes that take them to the front of the line for screening. British Airways calls it Fast Track, a service that also lets high-paying passengers jump the queue at passport and immigration control.1
But most people can’t afford to fly first-class, so the airlines have begun offering coach passengers the chance to buy line-cutting privileges as an à la carte perk. For an extra $39, United Airlines will sell you priority boarding for your flight from Denver to Boston, along with the right to cut in line at the security checkpoint. In Britain, London’s Luton Airport offers an even more affordable fast-track option: wait in the long security line or pay £3 (about $5) and go to the head of the queue.2
Critics complain that a fast track through airport security should not be for sale. Security checks, they argue, are a matter of national defense, not an amenity like extra legroom or early boarding privileges; the burden of keeping terrorists off airplanes should be shared equally by all passengers. The airlines reply that everyone is subjected to the same level of screening; only the wait varies by price. As long as everyone receives the same body scan, they maintain, a shorter wait in the security line is a convenience they should be free to sell.3
Amusement parks have also started selling the right to jump the queue. Traditionally, visitors may spend hours waiting in line for the most popular rides and attractions. Now, Universal Studios Hollywood and other theme parks offer a way to avoid the wait: for about twice the price of standard admission, they’ll sell you a pass that lets you go to the head of the line. Expedited access to the Revenge of the Mummy thrill ride may be morally less freighted than privileged access to an airport security check. Still, some observers lament the practice, seeing it as corrosive of a wholesome civic habit: “Gone are the days when the theme-park queue was the great equalizer,” one commentator wrote, “where every vacationing family waited its turn in democratic fashion.”4
Interestingly, amusement parks often obscure the special privileges they sell. To avoid offending ordinary customers, some parks usher their premium guests through back doors and separate gates; others provide an escort to ease the way of VIP guests as they cut in line. This need for discretion suggests that paid line cutting—even in an amusement park—tugs against a nagging sense that fairness means waiting your turn. But no such reticence appears on Universal’s online ticket site, which touts the $149 Front of Line Pass with unmistakable bluntness: “Cut to the FRONT at all rides, shows and attractions!”5
If you’re put off by queue jumping at amusement parks, you might opt instead for a traditional tourist sight, such as the Empire State Building. For $22 ($16 for children), you can ride the elevator to the eighty-sixth-floor observatory and enjoy a spectacular view of New York City. Unfortunately, the site attracts several million visitors a year, and the wait for the elevator can sometimes take hours. So the Empire State Building now offers a fast track of its own. For $45 per person, you can buy an Express Pass that lets you cut in line—for both the security check and the elevator ride. Shelling out $180 for a family of four may seem a steep price for a fast ride to the top. But as the ticketing website points out, the Express Pass is “a fantastic opportunity” to “make the most of your time in New York—and the Empire State Building—by skipping the lines and going straight to the greatest views.”6
LEXUS LANES
The fast-track trend can also be seen on freeways across the United States. Increasingly, commuters can buy their way out of bumper-to-bumper traffic and into a fast-moving express lane. It began during the 1980s with car pool lanes. Many states, hoping to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, created express lanes for commuters willing to share a ride. Solo drivers caught using the car pool lanes faced hefty fines. Some put blow-up dolls in the passenger seat in hopes of fooling the highway patrol. In an episode of the television comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David comes up with an ingenious way of buying access to the car pool lane: faced with heavy freeway traffic en route to an LA Dodgers baseball game, he hires a prostitute—not to have sex but to ride in his car on the way to the stadium. Sure enough, the quick ride in the car pool lane gets him there in time for the first pitch.7
Today, many commuters can do the same—without the need for hired help. For fees of up to $10 during rush hour, solo drivers can buy the right to use car pool lanes. San Diego, Minneapolis, Houston, Denver, Miami, Seattle, and San Francisco are among the cities that now sell the right to a faster commute. The toll typically varies according to the traffic—the heavier the traffic, the higher the fee. (In most places, cars with two or more occupants can still use express lanes for free.) On the Riverside Freeway, east of Los Angeles, rush-hour traffic creeps along at 15–20 miles an hour in the free lanes, while the paying customers in the express lane zip by at 60–65 mph.8
Some people object to the idea of selling the right to jump the queue. They argue that the proliferation of fast-track schemes adds to the advantages of affluence and consigns the poor to the back of the line. Opponents of paid express lanes call them “Lexus lanes” and say they are unfair to commuters of modest means. Others disagree. They argue that there is nothing wrong with charging more for faster service. Federal Express charges a premium for overnight delivery. The local dry cleaner charges extra for same-day service. And yet no one complains that it’s unfair for FedEx, or the dry cleaner, to deliver your parcel or launder your shirts ahead of someone else’s.
To an economist, long lines for goods and services are wasteful and inefficient, a sign that the price system has failed to align supply and demand. Letting people pay for faster service at airports, at amusement parks, and on highways improves economic efficiency by letting people put a price on their time.
THE LINE-STANDING BUSINESS
Even where you’re not allowed to buy your way to the head of the line, you can sometimes hire someone else to queue up on your behalf. Each summer, New York City’s Public Theater puts on free outdoor Shakespeare performances in Central Park. Tickets for the evening performances are made available at 1:00 p.m., and the line forms hours in advance. In 2010, when Al Pacino starred as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, demand for tickets was especially intense.
Many New Yorkers were eager to see the play but didn’t have time to stand in line. As the New York Daily News reported, this predicament gave rise to a cottage industry—people offering to wait in line to secure tickets for those willing to pay for the convenience. The line standers advertised their services on Craigslist and other websites. In exchange for queuing up and enduring the wait, they were able to charge their busy clients as much as $125 per ticket for the free performances.9
The theater tried to prevent the paid line standers from plying their trade, claiming “it’s not in the spirit of Shakespeare in the Park.” The mission of the Public Theater, a publicly subsidized, nonprofit enterprise, is to make great theater accessible to a broad audience drawn from all walks of life. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s attorney general at the time, pressured Craigslist to stop running ads for the tickets and line-standing services. “Selling tickets that are meant to be free,” he stated, “deprives New Yorkers of enjoying the benefits that this taxpayer-supported institution provides.”10
Central Park is not the only place where there’s money to be made by those who stand and wait. In Washington, D.C., the line-standing business is fast becoming a fixture of government. When congressional committees hold hearings on proposed legislation, they reserve some seats for the press and make others available to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis. Depending on the subject and the size of the room, the lines for the hearings can form a day or more in advance, sometimes in the rain or in the chill of winter. Corporate lobbyists are keen to attend these hearings, in order to chat up lawmakers during breaks and keep track of legislation affecting their industries. But the lobbyists are loath to spend hours in line to assure themselves a seat. Their solution: pay thousands of dollars to professional line-standing companies that hire people to queue up for them.
The line-standing companies recruit retirees, message couriers, and, increasingly, homeless people to brave the elements and hold a place in the queue. The line standers wait outside, then, as the line moves, they proceed inside the halls of the congressional office buildings, queuing up outside the hearing rooms. Shortly before the hearing begins, the well-heeled lobbyists arrive, trade places with their scruffily attired stand-ins, and claim their seats in the hearing room.11
The line-standing companies charge the lobbyists $36 to $60 per hour for the queuing service, which means that getting a seat in a committee hearing can cost $1,000 or more. The line standers themselves are paid $10–$20 per hour. The Washington Post has editorialized against the practice, calling it “demeaning” to Congress and “contemptuous of the public.” Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has tried to ban it, without success. “The notion that special interest groups can buy seats at congressional hearings like they would buy tickets to a concert or football game is offensive to me,” she said.12
The business has recently expanded from Congress to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Court hears oral arguments in big constitutional cases, it’s not easy to get in. But if you’re willing to pay, you can hire a line stander to get you a ringside seat in the highest court in the land.13
The company LineStanding.com describes itself as “a leader in the Congressional line standing business.” When Senator McCaskill proposed legislation to prohibit the practice, Mark Gross, the owner of the company, defended it. He compared line standing to the division of labor on Henry Ford’s assembly line: “Each worker on the line was responsible for his/her specific task.” Just as lobbyists are good at attending hearings and “analyzing all the testimony,” and senators and congressmen are good at “making an informed decision,” line standers are good at, well, waiting. “Division of labor makes America a great place to work,” Gross claimed. “Linestanding may seem like a strange practice, but it’s ultimately an honest job in a free-market economy.”14
Oliver Gomes, a professional line stander, agrees. He was living in a homeless shelter when he was recruited for the job. CNN interviewed him as he held a place in line for a lobbyist at a hearing on climate change. “Sitting in the halls of Congress made me feel a little better,” Gomes told CNN. “It elevated me and made me feel like, well, you know, maybe I do belong here, maybe I can contribute even at that little minute level.”15
But opportunity for Gomes meant frustration for some environmentalists. When a group of them showed up for the climate change hearing, they couldn’t get in. The lobbyists’ paid stand-ins had already staked out all the available seats in the hearing room.16 Of course, it might be argued that if the environmentalists cared enough about attending the hearing, they too could have queued up overnight. Or they could have hired homeless people to do it for them.
TICKET SCALPING DOCTOR APPOINTMENTS
Queuing for pay is not only an American phenomenon. Recently, while visiting China, I learned that the line-standing business has become routine at top hospitals in Beijing. The market reforms of the last two decades have resulted in funding cuts for public hospitals and clinics, especially in rural areas. So patients from the countryside now journey to the major public hospitals in the capital, creating long lines in registration halls. They queue up overnight, sometimes for days, to get an appointment ticket to see a doctor.17
The appointment tickets are a bargain—only 14 yuan (about $2). But it isn’t easy to get one. Rather than camp out for days and nights in the queue, some patients, desperate for an appointment, buy tickets from scalpers. The scalpers make a business of the yawning gap between supply and demand. They hire people to line up for appointment tickets and then resell the tickets for hundreds of dollars—more than a typical peasant makes in months. Appointments to see leading specialists are especially prized—and hawked by the scalpers as if they were box seats for the World Series. The Los Angeles Times described the ticket-scalping scene outside the registration hall of a Beijing hospital: “Dr. Tang. Dr. Tang. Who wants a ticket for Dr. Tang? Rheumatology and immunology.”18
There is something distasteful about scalping tickets to see a doctor. For one thing, the system rewards unsavory middlemen rather than those who provide the care. Dr. Tang could well ask why, if a rheumatology appointment is worth $100, most of the money should go to scalpers rather than to him, or his hospital. Economists might agree and advise hospitals to raise their prices. In fact, some Beijing hospitals have added special ticket windows, where the appointments are more expensive and the lines much shorter.19 This high-priced ticket window is the hospital’s version of the no-wait premium pass at amusement parks or the fast-track lane at the airport—a chance to pay to jump the queue.
But regardless of who cashes in on the excess demand, the scalpers or the hospital, the fast track to the rheumatologist raises a more basic question: Should patients be able to jump the queue for medical care simply because they can afford to pay extra?
The scalpers and special ticket windows at Beijing hospitals raise this question vividly. But the same question can be asked of a subtler form of queue jumping increasingly practiced in the U.S.—the rise of “concierge” doctors.
CONCIERGE DOCTORS
Although U.S. hospitals are not thronged with scalpers, medical care often involves a lot of waiting. Doctor appointments have to be scheduled weeks, sometimes months, in advance. When you show up for the appointment, you may have to cool your heels in the waiting room, only to spend a hurried ten or fifteen minutes with the doctor. The reason: Insurance companies don’t pay primary care doctors much for routine appointments. So to make a decent living, physicians in general practice have rosters of three thousand patients or more, and often rush through twenty-five to thirty appointments per day.20
Many patients and doctors are frustrated with this system, which leaves little time for doctors to get to know their patients or to answer their questions. So a growing number of physicians now o...

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