A well-heeled man is sitting alone in a hotel bar when a well-endowed young woman walks in and sits nearby. After having a friendly conversation for a while, the man asks the young woman if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. She readily agrees. He follows up by asking if she would do so for a dollar. “Of course not,” she replies. “What kind of girl do you think I am?”
“We’ve already established that,” says the man. “Now, we are just haggling over the price.”
In Michael Sandel's new book, What Money Can't Buy, he posits that capitalist theory has so invaded our culture that our values are now in question. They have been replaced by the practice of putting a price on everything.
Residents of the state prison in California can buy cell upgrades for $82 a night. One can contract for the services of a surrogate mother in India for $6,250. Doctors have established “concierge” services that provide superior responsiveness to their wealthy patients, denying such service to those less well off. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies to wait in line so they get a seat at Congressional hearings, denying the public access to the process of governing.
If everything is for sale, Sandel asks, what does that say about the character of our society? Is it okay to pay kids to read books or get good grades? Should good healthcare be available only to those who can afford it? Good people can disagree on the answers to these questions. But, almost everyone would agree that a line must be drawn somewhere. For example, we might all agree that it is not okay to sell a child.
Sandel traces the commoditization of almost everything to the 80’s, a decade during which the Soviet Union crumbled and the market theories of Reagan/Thatcher were vindicated. (He is not critical of those two leaders or of capitalist theory. He is just questioning the extent to which the concept has inculcated society.)
In this country, it is a concept grounded in our origins. The Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to both the French and American revolutions, espoused the theory that principled behavior arises from the nature of human beings not from the authority of the church. This philosophy formed the basis of Thomas Jefferson’s secular approach to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Thomas Paine who authored the Age of Reason was perhaps the most prominent of Americans promoting these beliefs. Paine criticized the church which he saw as corrupt. His writing style appealed to the masses and made secular philosophy a part of American culture. To that time, the crowned heads of Europe derived their authority from the “Divine Right of Kings” granted them by the church. Coupled with the market theories of Adam Smith, American culture was grounded in the self-reliance of free enterprise.
It seems logical that capitalist market theory would be embraced the world over in the wake of the Soviet collapse. But, if Sandel is correct – if everything is for sale and ethical behavior has no bearing – then the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction. It is within this framework that our elected officials must spend vast amounts of time raising money from well-heeled donors and wealthy individuals fund SuperPAC’s that espouse their views. Is our government for sale too?
During the last thirty years, we have had three two-term Presidents – Reagan, Clinton and Bush – who found a way to galvanize support, not by their policies but rather by delivering a message that voters identified with. For Reagan, it was that “government is not the solution; government is the problem”. Clinton pledged a “new beginning” and positioned himself as a New Democrat – liberal on social issues but pro-business. Bush’s leadership centered on the War on Terror and defeating the “axis of evil”.
Each of these Presidents was controversial in their time. They each had their loyal fans and their detractors. But, love them or hate them, there is no denying their success. They each had their way with Congresses of the opposite party; and, they did so by delivering a message that resonated with the public.
I am left to wonder which of this year’s candidates will deliver a resonant message – a message that conveys the character of society, a national ethic that people will embrace. Thus far, all we have heard are the attacks intended to mischaracterize the other guy.
Each candidate has well thought out economic, social and foreign policies, as well they should. However, pollsters tell us that, in the end, it won’t matter whose policies are most valid. It will matter whose message the American voting public most identifies with. That is how elections are won. The candidate who best defines the national character garners the support of the governed.
If neither candidate can galvanize public support in that way, it will be the Super-PAC’s and big money interests that win. So, I ask you…
What kind of nation do you think we are? Will our character prevail? Or, are we now just haggling over the price?
WHO WILL LEAD?