Monday, 13 May 2013

What Money Can't Buy

Regular readers will be aware of my disdain for twitter. In the Sunday Times last week it made me chuckle to read it described as being "a medium of communication designed for the vapid, the deranged and the self-obsessed."  Anyway, I'm grateful to the person who tweeted a reference to a book by Michael Sandel published in 2012 and entitled 'What Money Can't Buy :The Moral Limits of Markets.'  

Hang on I thought. That sounds like a very pertinent issue to explore, especially given the omnishambles that Chris Grayling intends to impose upon the Probation Service. His plan is all about creating a 'market' for rehabilitation services to all-but completely replace the former public service. So far much of the debate has centred around whether it will work or not. What about whether it's right or not? The morality of it.

Well here we have a much-respected academic saying very clearly that there is indeed a moral aspect to all this. These selected quotes from a comprehensive book review by John Lanchester of the Guardian gives a flavour of the argument:-   

"Over the past three decades," Sandel writes, "markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before." Sandel is no socialist and isn't against markets per se. He is forthright about the positive impact markets can have in their correct sphere. "No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity." His focus, perhaps unexpectedly, isn't on the 2008 crash and the great recession that followed. Instead, Sandel is interested in what he sees as a deeper and more consequential loss of our collective moral compass. "The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong."

Sandel is methodical about assembling evidence to refute the idea that markets are amoral and have no moral impact. Paying people to queue, for example: Sandel studies this practice in areas such as US congressional hearings and free outdoor theatre performances. In both cases, companies have come into being to allow the well-off to hire a homeless person to go and hold a place in the queue until the rich person turns up just in time for the main event. This is an example of something which is supposed to be a communal good being marketised and turned into cash. This has two consequences that often recur and are stressed by Sandel: one is that the process is unfair, and the other is that it is corrupting or degrading to the thing being marketised.

There's one example in particular that comes close to summing up the entire argument of What Money Can't Buy. It concerns an Israeli daycare centre, which responded to a problem with parents turning up late to collect their children by introducing fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee.
The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing was based on non-monetary values, and was a stronger force than mere cash. The daycare centre went back to the old system, but parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Once the old "norm" of turning up on time had been marketised, it was impossible to change back.
This is such a vivid illustration of Sandel's thinking that it is almost a parable. Let's hope that What Money Can't Buy, by being so patient and so accumulative in its argument and its examples, marks a permanent shift in these debates. Markets are not morally neutral. Let's all be clear about that. As Sandel concludes: "The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?" 
I think he could have had probation in mind when writing this book. He cites many more quite shocking examples of how market philosophy has been applied in all sorts of inappropriate and repugnant ways, such as trading life insurance policies on people with terminal illnesses, and companies like Walmart insuring for the possibility of customers dying on their premises. Every death provides a useful windfall apparently.

If you add to this examples of the perverse operation of markets, and apocryphal stories of buses not picking up passengers in order to keep to schedules, and trains cancelled instead of running late to avoid penalties, I think most people can see plenty of potential pitfalls in privatising probation.   
Sign the No10 petition here.


  1. I am told that the absence of a Psychology unit at HMP Peterborough. a private prison, already results in anyone needong a Psychology report being transferred out. Cherry picking is bsd enough on the Wprk Programme. In Probation, it will get people killed.

    1. I have no doubt about that Rob.



  2. Parking enforcement comes to mind. It used to be controlled by the police with traffic wardens and police officers giving out tickets or advice as and when appropriate.

    Then responsibility was turned over to councils and private companies and we all now see the results:-
    * All enforcement, with tickets etc, no words of advice any more.
    * Resources targeted towards where they know they will get easy pickings
    * Terrible parking in many towns and villages which are not not often covered, especially after dark when its too expensive to pay staff.

    I'm not Probation, but I've signed your petition.

    1. Yes good point - and they'll be doing enforcement by remote control very soon - using camera's everywhere - so no more trying to spot them coming - just get a ticket in the post.

      Thanks for commenting and signing.