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What can/should money buy?

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Here is an interesting review of a book arguing that the good of using markets to help distribute goods outweighs the sometimes distasteful appearance of buying things that in some intuitive sense shouldn’t be bought.

I’ll explain a bit. Michael Sandel, in his book What Money Can’t Buy, argues (surprisingly) that there are some things money shouldn’t buy. Consider, for example, a service that writes personal, heartfelt speeches for best men to give at their pals’ weddings; or consider the companies that, for a tidy sum, will send someone over to apologize to someone on your behalf. Consider getting out of jury duty by paying someone else to serve in your stead, or selling U.S. citizenship, or selling organs, or blood. In many of these cases, there is a worry that putting such things up for sale corrupts our moral relations to other people, or simply provides unfair advantage to those with more money.

On the other hand, one of the most efficient ways to get goods to those who value them the most is to put price tags on them. The best man who pays a lot for a heartfelt speech is showing how much he cares by paying a lot; same for the person who apologizes by proxy; and so on. It may be that the presence of these price tags offends our moral sensibilities; but if those sensibilities are accidents of evolution or culture anyway, perhaps that offense is a “price” we should be willing to pay for a more efficient distribution of goods. As the authors write, “when there is a clash between [these intuitions] and consequences, consequences win.”



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