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

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A renowned political philosopher rethinks the role that markets and money should play in our society

Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we put a price on human life to decide how much pollution to allow? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars, outsourcing inmates to for-profit prisons, auctioning admission to elite ...

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

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A renowned political philosopher rethinks the role that markets and money should play in our society

Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we put a price on human life to decide how much pollution to allow? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars, outsourcing inmates to for-profit prisons, auctioning admission to elite universities, or selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?

     In his New York Times bestseller What Money Can’t Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes up one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Isn’t 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. Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

     In Justice, an international bestseller, 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 a debate that’s been missing in our market-driven age: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Are we shifting from a market economy to a market society? In this timely book, Harvard University government professor Michael J. Sandel (Justice) asks that question as he describes our ever-growing tendency to view everything as simply a monetary matter. He identifies our market-driven obsessions in almost every facet and activity of our lives: medicine, education, government, sports, arts, crime, and even our children's grades and homework. A compelling examination about whether money is the only value. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

From the Publisher
Praise for Michael Sandel and What Money Can't Buy: 

“Michael Sandel's What Money Can’t Buy is a great book and I recommend every economist to read it, even though we are not really his target audience. The book is pitched at a much wider audience of concerned citizens. But it taps into a rich seam of discontent about the discipline of economics.... The book is brimming with interesting examples which make you think.... I read this book cover-to-cover in less than 48 hours. And I have written more marginal notes than for any book I have read in a long time.”—Timothy Besley, Journal of Economic Literature

“Provocative. . . What Money Can’t Buy [is] an engaging, compelling read, consistently unsettling and occasionally unnerving. . . [It] deserves a wide readership.”—David M. Kennedy, Democracy

“Brilliant, easily readable, beautifully delivered and often funny. . . an indispensable book on the relationship between morality and economics.”—David Aaronovitch, The Times (London)

“Sandel is probably the world’s most relevant living philosopher.”—Michael Fitzgerald, Newsweek

“In a culture mesmerized by the market, Sandel's is the indispensable voice of reason…. What Money Can’t Buy. . . must surely be one of the most important exercises in public philosophy in many years.”—John Gray, New Statesman

“[An] important book. . . Michael Sandel is just the right person to get to the bottom of the tangle of moral damage that is being done by markets to our values.”—Jeremy Waldron, The New York Review of Books

“The most famous teacher of philosophy in the world, [has] shown that it is possible to take philosophy into the public square without insulting the public’s intelligence. . .[He] is trying to force open a space for a discourse on civic virtue that he believes has been abandoned by both left and right.”—Michael Ignatieff, The New Republic

“[Sandel]is such a gentle critic that he merely asks us to open our eyes. . . Yet What Money Can’t Buy makes it clear that market morality is an exceptionally thin wedge. . . Sandel is pointing out. . . [a] quite profound change in society.”—Jonathan V. Last, The Wall Street Journal

What Money Can’t Buy is the work of a truly public philosopher. . . [It] recalls John Kenneth Galbraith’s influential 1958 book, The Affluent Society. . .Galbraith lamented the impoverishment of the public square. Sandel worries about its abandonment—or, more precisely, its desertion by the more fortunate and capable among us. . .[A]n engaging, compelling read, consistently unsettling. . . it reminds us how easy it is to slip into a purely material calculus about the meaning of life and the means we adopt in pursuit of happiness.”—David M. Kennedy, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

“[Sandel] is currently the most effective communicator of ideas in English.”—The Guardian

“Michael Sandel is probably the most popular political philosopher of his generation. . .The attention Sandel enjoys is more akin to a stadium-filling self-help guru than a philosopher. But rather than instructing his audiences to maximize earning power or balance their chakras, he challenges them to address fundamental questions about how society is organized. . . His new book [What Money Can’t Buy] offers an eloquent argument for morality in public life.”—Andrew Anthony, The Observer (London)

What Money Can’t Buy is replete with examples of what money can, in fact, buy. . . Sandel has a genius for showing why such changes are deeply important.”—Martin Sandbu, Financial Times

“One of the leading political thinkers of our time…. Sandel’s new book is What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and I recommend it highly.  It’s a powerful indictment of the market society we have become, where virtually everything has a price.”—Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast

“To understand the importance of [Sandel’s] purpose, you first have to grasp the full extent of the triumph achieved by market thinking in economics, and the extent to which that thinking has spread to other domains. This school sees economics as a discipline that has nothing to do with morality, and is instead the study of incentives, considered in an ethical vacuum. Sandel's book is, in its calm way, an all-out assault on that idea…. 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.”—John Lancaster, The Guardian

“Sandel is among the leading public intellectuals of the age. He writes clearly and concisely in prose that neither oversimplifies nor obfuscates…. Sandel asks the crucial question of our time: ‘Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?’”—Douglas Bell, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Deeply provocative and intellectually suggestive…. What Sandel does…is to prod us into asking whether we have any reason for drawing a line between what is and what isn’t exchangeable, what can’t be reduced to commodity terms…. [A] wake-up call to recognize our desperate need to rediscover some intelligible way of talking about humanity.”—Rowan Williams, Prospect

“There is no more fundamental question we face than how to best preserve the common good and build strong communities that benefit everyone. Sandel's book is an excellent starting place for that dialogue.”—Kevin J. Hamilton, The Seattle Times

“Poring through Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel's new book. . . I found myself over and over again turning pages and saying, 'I had no idea.' I had no idea that in the year 2000, 'a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space.’. . . I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now 'even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event.'. . . I had no idea that in 2001 an elementary school in New Jersey became America's first public school 'to sell naming rights to a corporate sponsor.'  Why worry about this trend?  Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices.”—Thomas Friedman, New York Times

“An exquisitely reasoned, skillfully written treatise on big issues of everyday life.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“In his new book, Michael Sandel —the closest the world of political philosophy comes to a celebrity — argues that we now live in a society where ‘almost everything can be bought and sold.’ As markets have infiltrated more parts of life, Sandel believes we have shifted from a market economy to ‘a market society,’ turning the world — and most of us in it — into commodities. And when Sandel proselytizes, the world listens…. Sandel’s ideas could hardly be more timely.”—Rosamund Urwin, Evening Standard (London)

Library Journal
We know money can't buy us love, but in a market-driven age it seems capable of buying just about everything else. Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of the international best seller Justice, Sandel is clearly alarmed at how much market thinking has permeated areas where such valuation seems wholly unwarranted, from medicine, education, and sports to the arts and personal relationships. Should we really pay kids to get good grades, or establish for-profit prisons, or sell citizenship to those who can afford it? The shift from having a market economy to being a market society, as Sandel would have it, seems to have coarsened our sensibilities and raises real ethical issues. Perhaps the publisher's top nonfiction title for the year; great book-club discussion.
Kirkus Reviews
Sandel (Government/Harvard Univ.; Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, 2010, etc.) sounds the alarm that the belief in a market economy diminishes moral thought. Taken to its extreme, a market economy dictates that any inanimate object, any animal, any human being can be bought and sold. That thinking justified human slavery in the United States until the end of the Civil War, but Sandel's examples are far subtler than slavery. Should any society find it desirable to place a price on polluting the environment? On first-rate health care? On admission to the best colleges? When so much is available for sale, writes the author, there are two inevitable negative consequences: inequality and corruption. Sandel devotes the first chapter to "Jumping the Queue." He explains the conundrums that arise when first-class airline passengers are allowed to skip the long lines at security, when single-passenger cars purchase the right to use express lanes designed for fuel-efficient multiple-passenger vehicles, when theatergoers pay somebody to stand in line overnight to score tickets for the best seats and when long waits for medical treatment at hospitals are circumvented by buying the services of concierge doctors, who guarantee quick access. Although not primarily a quantitative researcher, Sandel tests the boundaries of a market economy in his Harvard seminar on Ethics, Economics and the Law. The reactions of his students provide him with new examples of moral (or immoral or amoral) reasoning about everyday decision making in an economy where cash payments rule. Sandel notes that the reality of a market economy embeds a vital question: How do members of the citizenry choose the values by which they will conduct their daily living? Are there certain commodities that markets should not honor? An exquisitely reasoned, skillfully written treatise on big issues of everyday life.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Can anything be bought and sold? Are there no limits to what is for sale?

We are familiar with the fact that if you have money you can get to the head of almost any line, whether at the airport or the doctor's office. Some people sell advertising space on their foreheads, some sell the use of their wombs for other people's pregnancies, some their kidneys. In Michael Sandel's resonant phrase, what once were market economies have become market societies. As he argues in What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, almost anything can in fact be purchased, or at least achieved by bribe: Sandel makes a telling example out of the practice of paying high school students to read.

That sort of practice is not hard to recognize as undesirable, even corrupting. But this book makes the grim case that such bottom-line thinking has become alarmingly pervasive: "As markets and market- oriented thinking reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms — health, education, procreation, refugee policy, environmental protection — this dilemma arises more and more often," Sandel writes. "What should we do when the promise of economic growth or economic efficiency means putting a price on goods we consider priceless?"

An illustration of the dilemma is provided by Africa?s rare and endangered black rhino. These highly dangerous and difficult-to-hunt animals are, for precisely these reasons, much prized by trophy hunters. To me the desire to kill one seems not only minimally comprehensible but maximally repugnant, but the South African government, in the interests of protecting the species, has elected to permit limited hunting so that farmers can have a lucrative reason for breeding them and protecting them from poachers. Given that poaching reduced the black rhino population from 25,000 to 2,500 in the two decades after 1970, using market incentives to protect them appears justified. The first person to kill one legally for a fee, an American financier, paid $150,000 for the privilege. "Subsequent customers," Sandel dryly observes, "included a Russian petroleum billionaire, who paid to kill three."

How far can this kind of thing go? For example: how long will it be before a severely cash-strapped government will be tempted to sell people-killing licenses? There are sure to be people out there who would pay to shoot, say, a condemned murderer. One could add to the fun by setting the the murderer free in the fields, and the shooters could go after him in helicopters — an updated version of the Roman circus where gladiators dispose of those already given the thumbs-down. Come to think of it: what about creating a market in killing Taliban, allowing people to buy an opportunity to do so from a drone-control center in the safety of Texas? The variations and possibilities are legion. But if (as I hope we do) we think these are horrible suggestions, then we think that there are moral limits to markets. And that is exactly Sandel's point.

Sandel argues that there are two arguments always in play when debates arise about what it is appropriate for money to buy. They can be phrased as objections, one concerning fairness and the other concerning corruption. He writes, "The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve." The market for human kidneys, for example, preys on the poor, and the choice made by an individual to sell a kidney in such circumstances is not genuinely voluntary. That is the fairness objection. The corruption objection is that a trade in the organs of living humans degrades and objectifies them into collections of spare parts. As Sandel puts it, "The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity.... The corruption objection...points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices."

These are powerful points. Oscar Wilde once made a disparaging remark about people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing; Sandel?s point is that seeing everything as having a price is corrosive of value. That is surely right. He multiplies examples of cases where the market impulse has just such a corrosive effect, not only on things but on human relations, too. Can marriage be understood in cost-benefit terms alone? What are we losing if we pay students to read the books assigned for their courses?

But as Sandel acknowledges, there are plenty of cases where it is not clear whether a money value is wholly inappropriate. Take the case of a person waiting in line for theater tickets on someone else's behalf. Poverty might drive a person to do this, but doing this is not so extreme a sacrifice as selling a kidney. Surely if someone sells his time, he is only doing what everyone does anyway. Someone who pays a surrogate to wait in line is demonstrating a willingness to bear the cost of realizing his desire to have the tickets; the market is directing the tickets to the person keenest to have them. As Sandel also notes, though, in this case the tickets are going to the person not only with the greatest desire to have them but the greatest ability to secure them.

This implies the question of fairness again. But it also obliges us to inspect an assumption that underlies the fairness complaint: whether the fact that different people have different levels of resource is always unjust. What about the greater talent or harder work that results in a person's accumulating resources greater than those of a less capable or lazier person? If the better-resourced person uses a moiety of his resources to pay a surrogate to wait in line — a surrogate who might be pleased to earn money this way — where is the harm? Is it not, on the contrary, a case of mutual benefit? And surely mutual benefit is the aim and outcome of many monetary transactions between people.

Critics of Sandel?s view might point to another assumption lurking in the background of common intuitions about money, namely, that money is dangerous, even intrinsically bad, because of the ready way it can corrupt some — too many — who touch it. Critics might grant the justice of this suspicion for cases where money is fetishized as an object of desire in its own right; but they will argue that, objectively viewed, money is nothing but a convenience, and at least many people who desire it do so because they really desire other genuinely worthwhile objects or activities, such as travel, a home, the acquisition of new skills or experiences. The point is obvious enough, but it gets overlooked when we forget the original point of money — its instrumental nature and the utility it represents — in the presence of examples of money being used for the purposes Sandel criticizes.

Critics will also pounce upon Sandel's view that there is a clearly discernible hierarchy of goods that allow us to see what is and is not marketable. "When market reasoning it applied to sex, procreation, child rearing, education, health, criminal punishment, immigration policy and environmental protection, it's less plausible to assume that everyone's preferences are equally worthwhile," Sandel writes. "In morally charged arenas such as these, some ways of valuing goods may be higher, more appropriate than others." These last dozen words will be the critics? goad: they express the same idea that got John Stuart Mill into trouble when he asserted that some things (e.g., reading Aeschylus) are intrinsically more valuable than other things (e.g., drinking a beer). Who, they will ask, has the right to say such a thing?

These objections notwithstanding, Sandel's case is compelling. Buying a bride, bribing people in desperate circumstances to sell a bodily organ, making people do bad things by paying them more than their scruples can resist, allowing people to do bad things because they can pay a lot to do them — such things add up to a profound corrosion of values. Sandel quotes a pair of economists who claim that their profession "believes the world has not yet invented a problem that [an economist] cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme. His solution may not always be pretty — it may involve coercion or exorbitant penalties or the violation of civil liberties — but the original problem, rest assured, will fixed." This reminds one of the Mafia's unrefusable offers, and the horse's head in the bed that makes the point about them. Of course there are incentives that will overcome almost any obstacle or principle. But it is precisely Sandel's point that this should not be so, and that no one should be asked, as if it were perfectly all right that they would agree, to set aside every consideration of value or good if offered enough money to do so.

The task Sandel?s book invites us to undertake is to discern where the lines should be drawn between the marketable and the unmarketable, the things that have a price and those that are priceless. We might have individual views about this, but Sandel?s point is a larger one: that we should formulate such a view as a society, as a culture; and we should do so long before matters so evolve that — say — shooters can buy licenses to hunt down convicted criminals in our own woods and fields.

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Ideas That Matter and Thinking of Answers. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

Reviewer: A. C. Grayling

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781846144714
  • Publisher: Allen Lane
  • Publication date: 5/28/2012
  • Pages: 244
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet 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 recent books include the New York Times bestseller Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?.

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Read an Excerpt

What Money Can't Buy

The Moral Limits of Markets
By Michael J. Sandel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Michael J. Sandel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374203030


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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 offer a more attentive form of care known as “concierge medicine.” Like the concierge at a five-star hotel, the concierge physician is at your service around the clock. For annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000, patients are assured of same-day or next-day appointments, no waiting, leisurely consultations, and twenty-four-hour access to the doctor by email and cell phone. And if you need to see a top specialist, your concierge doctor will pave the way.21
To provide this attentive service, concierge physicians sharply reduce the number of patients they care for. Physicians who decide to convert their practice into a concierge service send a letter to their existing patients offering a choice: sign up for the new, no-wait service for an annual retainer fee, or find another doctor.22
One of the first concierge practices, and one of the priciest, is MD2 (“MD Squared”), founded in 1996 in Seattle. For a fee of $15,000 per year for an individual ($25,000 for a family), the company promises “absolute, unlimited and exclusive access to your personal physician.”23 Each doctor serves only fifty families. As the company explains on its website, the “availability and level of service we provide absolutely necessitates that we limit our practice to a select few.”24 An article in Town & Country magazine reports that the MD2 waiting room “looks more like the lobby of a Ritz-Carlton than a clinical doctor’s office.” But few patients even go there. Most are “CEOs and business owners who don’t want to lose an hour out of their day to go to the doctor’s office and prefer instead to receive care in the privacy of their home or office.”25
Other concierge practices cater to the upper middle class. MDVIP, a for-profit concierge chain based in Florida, offers same-day appointments and prompt service (answering your call by the second ring) for $1,500 to $1,800 per year, and accepts insurance payments for standard medical procedures. Participating physicians cut their patient rolls to six hundred, enabling them to spend more time with each patient.26 The company assures patients that “waiting will not be a part of their health care experience.” According to The New York Times, an MDVIP practice in Boca Raton sets out fruit salad and sponge cake in the waiting room. But since there is little if any waiting, the food often goes untouched.27
For concierge doctors and their paying customers, concierge care is everything medicine should be. Doctors can see eight to twelve patients a day, rather than thirty, and still come out ahead financially. Physicians affiliated with MDVIP keep two-thirds of the annual fee (one-third goes to the company), which means a practice with six hundred patients makes $600,000 per year in retainer fees alone, not counting reimbursements from insurance companies. For patients who can afford it, unhurried appointments and round-the-clock access to a doctor are luxuries worth paying for.28
The drawback, of course, is that concierge care for a few depends on shunting everyone else onto the crowded rolls of other doctors.29 It therefore invites the same objection leveled against all fast-track schemes: that it’s unfair to those left languishing in the slow lane.
Concierge medicine differs, to be sure, from the special ticket windows and the appointment-scalping system in Beijing. Those who can’t afford a concierge doc can generally find decent care elsewhere, while those who can’t afford a scalper in Beijing are consigned to days and nights of waiting.
But the two systems have this in common: each enables the affluent to jump the queue for medical care. The queue jumping is more brazen in Beijing than in Boca Raton. There seems a world of difference between the clamor of the crowded registration hall and the calm of the waiting room with the uneaten sponge cake. But that’s only because, by the time the concierge patient arrives for his or her appointment, the culling of the queue has already taken place, out of view, by the imposition of the fee.
The stories we’ve just considered are signs of the times. In airports and amusement parks, in the corridors of Congress and the waiting rooms of doctors, the ethic of the queue—“first come, first-served”—is being displaced by the ethic of the market—“you get what you pay for.”
And this shift reflects something bigger—the growing reach of money and markets into spheres of life once governed by nonmarket norms.
Selling the right to cut in line is not the most grievous instance of this trend. But thinking through the rights and wrongs of line standing, ticket scalping, and other forms of queue jumping can help us glimpse the moral force—and moral limits—of market reasoning.
Is there anything wrong with hiring people to stand in line, or with scalping tickets? Most economists say no. They have little sympathy for the ethic of the queue. If I want to hire a homeless person to queue up on my behalf, they ask, why should anyone complain? If I’d rather sell my ticket than use it, why should I be prevented from doing so?
The case for markets over queues draws on two arguments. One is about respecting individual freedom; the other is about maximizing welfare, or social utility. The first is a libertarian argument. It maintains that people should be free to buy and sell whatever they please, as long as they don’t violate anyone’s rights. Libertarians oppose laws against ticket scalping for the same reason they oppose laws against prostitution, or the sale of human organs: they believe such laws violate individual liberty, by interfering with the choices made by consenting adults.
The second argument for markets, more familiar among economists, is utilitarian. It says that market exchanges benefit buyers and sellers alike, thereby improving our collective well-being, or social utility. The fact that my line stander and I strike a deal proves that we are both better off as a result. Paying $125 to see the Shakespeare play without having to wait in line must make me better off; otherwise I wouldn’t have hired the line stander. And earning $125 by spending hours in a queue must make the line stander better off; otherwise he or she wouldn’t have taken the job. We are both better off as a result of our exchange; our utility increases. This is what economists mean when they say that free markets allocate goods efficiently. By allowing people to make mutually advantageous trades, markets allocate goods to those who value them most highly, as measured by their willingness to pay.
My colleague Greg Mankiw, an economist, is the author of one of the most widely used economics textbooks in the United States. He uses the example of ticket scalping to illustrate the virtues of the free market. First, he explains that economic efficiency means allocating goods in a way that maximizes “the economic well-being of everyone in society.” He then observes that free markets contribute to this goal by allocating “the supply of goods to the buyers who value them most highly, as measured by their willingness to pay.”30 Consider ticket scalpers: “If an economy is to allocate its scarce resources efficiently, goods must get to those consumers who value them most highly. Ticket scalping is one example of how markets reach efficient outcomes … By charging the highest price the market will bear, scalpers help ensure that consumers with the greatest willingness to pay for the tickets actually do get them.”31
If the free-market argument is correct, ticket scalpers and line-standing companies should not be vilified for violating the integrity of the queue; they should be praised for improving social utility by making underpriced goods available to those most willing to pay for them.
What, then, is the case for the ethic of the queue? Why try to banish paid line standers and ticket scalpers from Central Park or Capitol Hill? A spokesperson for Shakespeare in the Park offered the following rationale: “They are taking a spot away and a ticket away from someone who wants to be there and is eager to see a production of Shakespeare in the Park. We want people to have that experience for free.”32
The first part of the argument is flawed. Hired line standers do not reduce the total number of people who see the performance; they only change who sees it. It’s true, as the spokesperson claims, that the line standers take tickets that would otherwise go to people farther back in the queue who are eager to see the play. But those who wind up with those tickets are also eager to see the play. That’s why they shell out $125 to hire a line stander.
What the spokesperson probably meant is that ticket scalping is unfair to those who can’t afford the $125. It puts ordinary folks at a disadvantage and makes it harder for them to get tickets. This is a stronger argument. When a line stander or scalper gets a ticket, someone behind him or her in the queue loses out, someone who may be unable to afford the scalper’s price.
Free-market advocates might reply as follows: If the theater really wants to fill its seats with people eager to see the play and to maximize the pleasure its performances give, then it should want tickets to go to those who value them most highly. And those are the people who will pay most for a ticket. So the best way to pack the house with an audience that will derive the greatest pleasure from the play is to let the free market operate—either by selling tickets for whatever price the market will bear, or by allowing line standers and scalpers to sell to the highest bidders. Getting tickets to those willing to pay the highest price for them is the best way of determining who most values a Shakespeare performance.
But this argument is unconvincing. Even if your goal is to maximize social utility, free markets may not do so more reliably than queues. The reason is that the willingness to pay for a good does not show who values it most highly. This is because market prices reflect the ability as well as the willingness to pay. Those who most want to see Shakespeare, or the Red Sox, may be unable to afford a ticket. And in some cases, those who pay the most for tickets may not value the experience very highly at all.
I’ve noticed, for example, that the people sitting in the expensive seats at the ballpark often show up late and leave early. This makes me wonder how much they care about baseball. Their ability to afford seats behind home plate may have more to do with the depth of their pockets than their passion for the game. They certainly don’t care as much as some fans, especially young ones, who can’t afford box seats but who can tell you the batting average of every player in the starting lineup. Since market prices reflect the ability as well as the willingness to pay, they are imperfect indicators of who most values a particular good.
This is a familiar point, even an obvious one. But it casts doubt on the economist’s claim that markets are always better than queues at getting goods to those who value them most highly. In some cases, the willingness to stand in line—for theater tickets or for the ball game—may be a better indicator of who really wants to attend than the willingness to pay.
Defenders of ticket scalping complain that queuing “discriminates in favor of people who have the most free time.”33 That’s true, but only in the same sense that markets “discriminate” in favor of people who have the most money. As markets allocate goods based on the ability and willingness to pay, queues allocate goods based on the ability and willingness to wait. And there is no reason to assume that the willingness to pay for a good is a better measure of its value to a person than the willingness to wait.
So the utilitarian case for markets over queues is highly contingent. Sometimes markets do get goods to those who value them most highly; other times, queues may do so. Whether, in any given case, markets or queues do this job better is an empirical question, not a matter that can be resolved in advance by abstract economic reasoning.
But the utilitarian argument for markets over queues is open to a further, more fundamental objection: utilitarian considerations are not the only ones that matter. Certain goods have value in ways that go beyond the utility they give individual buyers and sellers. How a good is allocated may be part of what makes it the kind of good it is.
Think again about the Public Theater’s free summer Shakespeare performances. “We want people to have that experience for free,” said the spokesperson, explaining the theater’s opposition to hired line standers. But why? How would the experience be diminished if tickets were bought and sold? It would be diminished, of course, for those who’d like to see the play but can’t afford a ticket. But fairness is not the only thing at stake. Something is lost when free public theater is turned into a market commodity, something beyond the disappointment experienced by those who are priced out of attending.
The Public Theater sees its free outdoor performances as a public festival, a kind of civic celebration. It is, so to speak, a gift the city gives itself. Of course, seating is not unlimited; the entire city cannot attend on any given evening. But the idea is to make Shakespeare freely available to everyone, without regard to the ability to pay. Charging for admission, or allowing scalpers to profit from what is meant to be a gift, is at odds with this end. It changes a public festival into a business, a tool for private gain. It would be as if the city made people pay to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Similar considerations explain what’s wrong with paid line standing on Capitol Hill. One objection is about fairness: it’s unfair that wealthy lobbyists can corner the market on congressional hearings, depriving ordinary citizens of the opportunity to attend. But unequal access is not the only troubling aspect of this practice. Suppose lobbyists were taxed when they hired line-standing companies, and the proceeds were used to make line-standing services affordable for ordinary citizens. The subsidies might take the form, say, of vouchers redeemable for discounted rates at line-standing companies. Such a scheme might ease the unfairness of the present system. But a further objection would remain: turning access to Congress into a product for sale demeans and degrades it.
From an economic point of view, allowing free access to congressional hearings “underprices” the good, giving rise to queues. The line-standing industry remedies this inefficiency by establishing a market price. It allocates seats in the hearing room to those who are willing to pay the most for them. But this values the good of representative government in the wrong way.
We can see this more clearly if we ask why Congress “underprices” admission to its deliberations in the first place. Suppose, striving mightily to reduce the national debt, Congress decided to charge admission to its hearings—$1,000, say, for a front-row seat at the Appropriations Committee. Many people would object, not only on the grounds that the admission fee is unfair to those unable to afford it but also on the grounds that charging the public to attend a congressional hearing is a kind of corruption.
We often associate corruption with ill-gotten gains. But corruption refers to more than bribes and illicit payments. To corrupt a good or a social practice is to degrade it, to treat it according to a lower mode of valuation than is appropriate to it. Charging admission to congressional hearings is a form of corruption in this sense. It treats Congress as if it were a business rather than an institution of representative government.
Cynics might reply that Congress is already a business, in that it routinely sells influence and favors to special interests. So why not acknowledge this openly and charge admission? The answer is that the lobbying, influence peddling, and self-dealing that already afflict Congress are also instances of corruption. They represent the degradation of government in the public interest. Implicit in any charge of corruption is a conception of the purposes and ends an institution (in this case, Congress) properly pursues. The line-standing industry on Capitol Hill, an extension of the lobbying industry, is corrupt in this sense. It is not illegal, and the payments are made openly. But it degrades Congress by treating it as a source of private gain rather than an instrument of the public good.
Why do some instances of paid queue jumping, line standing, and ticket scalping strike us as objectionable, while others do not? The reason is that market values are corrosive of certain goods but appropriate to others. Before we can decide whether a good should be allocated by markets, queues, or in some other way, we have to decide what kind of good it is and how it should be valued.
Figuring this out is not always easy. Consider three examples of “underpriced” goods that have recently given rise to ticket scalping: campsites at Yosemite National Park, open-air masses conducted by Pope Benedict XVI, and live concerts by Bruce Springsteen.
Scalping Campsites at Yosemite
Yosemite National Park, in California, attracts more than four million visitors a year. About nine hundred of its prime campsites can be reserved in advance, at a nominal cost of $20 per night. The reservations can be booked, by telephone or online, beginning at 7:00 a.m. on the fifteenth of each month, up to five months in advance. But it’s not easy to get one. Demand is so intense, especially for the summer, that the campsites are fully booked within minutes of becoming available.
In 2011, however, The Sacramento Bee reported that ticket scalpers were offering Yosemite campsites for sale on Craigslist for $100 to $150 per night. The National Park Service, which prohibits the resale of reservations, was flooded with complaints about the scalpers and tried to prevent the illicit trade.34 According to standard market logic, it’s not clear why it should: If the National Park Service wants to maximize the welfare society derives from Yosemite, it should want the campsites to be used by those who most value the experience, as measured by their willingness to pay. So rather than try to defeat the scalpers, it should welcome them. Or it should raise the price it charges for campsite reservations to the market-clearing price and eliminate the excess demand.
But the public outrage over the scalping of Yosemite campsites rejects this market logic. The newspaper that broke the story ran an editorial condemning the scalpers under the headline SCALPERS STRIKE YOSEMITE PARK: IS NOTHING SACRED? It saw the scalping as a scam to be prevented, not as a service to social utility. “The wonders of Yosemite belong to all of us,” the editorial stated, “not just those who can afford to fork over extra cash to a scalper.”35
Underlying the hostility to scalping campsites at Yosemite are actually two objections—one about fairness, the other about the proper way of valuing a national park. The first objection worries that scalping is unfair to people of modest means, who can’t afford to pay $150 a night for a campsite. The second objection, implied by the editorial’s rhetorical question (“Is nothing sacred?”) draws on the idea that some things should not be up for sale. According to this idea, national parks are not merely objects of use or sources of social utility. They are places of natural wonder and beauty, worthy of appreciation, even awe. For scalpers to auction access to such places seems a kind of sacrilege.
Papal Masses for Sale
Here is another example of market values colliding with a sacred good: When Pope Benedict XVI made his first visit to the United States, demand for tickets to his stadium masses in New York City and Washington, D.C., far exceeded the supply of seats—even in Yankee Stadium. Free tickets were distributed through Catholic dioceses and local parishes. When the inevitable ticket scalping ensued—one ticket sold online for more than $200—church officials condemned it on the grounds that access to a religious rite should not be bought and sold. “There shouldn’t be a market in tickets,” a church spokeswoman said. “You can’t pay to celebrate a sacrament.”36
Those who bought tickets from scalpers might disagree. They succeeded in paying to celebrate a sacrament. But the church spokeswoman was trying, I think, to make a different point: although it may be possible to gain admission to a papal mass by buying a ticket from a scalper, the spirit of the sacrament is tainted if the experience is up for sale. Treating religious rituals, or natural wonders, as marketable commodities is a failure of respect. Turning sacred goods into instruments of profit values them in the wrong way.
The Market for Springsteen
But what of an event that is partly a commercial enterprise and partly something else? In 2009, Bruce Springsteen performed two concerts in his home state of New Jersey. He set the highest ticket price at $95, even though he could have charged much more and still filled the arena. This price restraint led to rampant ticket scalping and deprived Springsteen of a lot of money. The Rolling Stones had recently charged $450 for the best seats on their concert tour. Economists who studied ticket prices at an earlier Springsteen concert found that, by charging less than the market price, he had forgone about $4 million that evening.37
So why not charge the market price? For Springsteen, keeping ticket prices relatively affordable is a way of keeping faith with his working-class fans. It is also a way of expressing a certain understanding of what his concerts are about. They are moneymaking ventures, to be sure, but only in part. They are also celebratory events whose success depends on the character and composition of the crowd. The performance consists not only in the songs but also in the relationship between the performer and his audience, and the spirit in which they gather.
In a New Yorker article on the economics of rock concerts, John Seabrook points out that live concerts are not thoroughgoing commodities, or market goods; to treat them as if they were is to diminish them: “Records are commodities; concerts are social events, and in trying to make a commodity out of the live experience you risk spoiling the experience altogether.” He quotes Alan Krueger, an economist who has studied the pricing of Springsteen concerts: “There is still an element of rock concerts that is more like a party than a commodities market.” A ticket to a Springsteen concert, Krueger explained, is not only a market good. It is in some respects a gift. If Springsteen charged as much as the market would bear, he would undermine the gift relation with his fans.38
Some may see this as mere public relations, a strategy to forgo some revenue today to preserve goodwill and maximize earnings in the long term. But this is not the only way to make sense of it. Springsteen may believe, and be right to believe, that to treat his live performance as a purely market good would be to demean it, to value it in the wrong way. In this respect at least, he may have something in common with Pope Benedict.
We’ve considered several ways of paying to cut in line: hiring line standers, buying tickets from scalpers, or purchasing line-cutting privileges directly from, say, an airline or an amusement park. Each of these transactions supplants the ethic of the queue (waiting your turn) with the ethic of the market (paying a price for faster service).
Markets and queues—paying and waiting—are two different ways of allocating things, and each is appropriate to different activities. The ethic of the queue, “First come, first served,” has an egalitarian appeal. It bids us to ignore privilege, power, and deep pockets—at least for certain purposes. “Wait your turn,” we were admonished as children. “Don’t cut in line.”
The principle seems apt on playgrounds, at bus stops, and when there’s a line for the public restroom at a theater or ballpark. We resent people cutting in front of us. If someone with an urgent need asks to jump the queue, most people will oblige. But we’d consider it odd if someone at the back of the line offered us $10 to trade places—or if the management set up express pay toilets alongside the free ones, to accommodate affluent customers (or desperate ones).
But the ethic of the queue does not govern all occasions. If I put my house up for sale, I’m under no obligation to accept the first offer that comes along, simply because it’s the first. Selling my house and waiting for a bus are different activities, properly governed by different norms. There’s no reason to assume that any single principle—queuing or paying—should determine the allocation of all goods.
Sometimes norms change, and it is unclear which principle should prevail. Think of the recorded message you hear, played over and over, as you wait on hold when calling your bank, HMO, or cable television provider: “Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.” This is the essence of the ethic of the queue. It’s as if the company is trying to soothe our impatience with the balm of fairness.
But don’t take that recorded message too seriously. Today, some people’s calls are answered faster than others. You might call it telephonic queue jumping. Growing numbers of banks, airlines, and credit card companies provide special phone numbers to their best customers or route their calls to elite call centers for prompt attention. Call center technology enables companies to “score” incoming calls and to give faster service to those that come from affluent places. Delta Airlines recently proposed giving frequent flyers a controversial perk: the option of paying $5 extra to speak to a customer service agent in the United States, rather than be routed to a call center in India. Public disapproval led Delta to abandon the idea.39
Is there anything wrong with answering the calls of your best (or most promising) customers first? It depends on the kind of good you’re selling. Are they calling about an overdraft fee or an appendectomy?
Of course, markets and queues are not the only ways of allocating things. Some goods we distribute by merit, others by need, still others by lottery or chance. Universities typically admit students with the greatest talent and promise, not those who apply first or offer the most money for a place in the freshman class. Hospital emergency rooms treat patients according to the urgency of their condition, not according to the order of their arrival or their willingness to pay extra to be seen first. Jury duty is allocated by lottery; if you are called to serve, you can’t hire someone else to take your place.
The tendency of markets to displace queues, and other nonmarket ways of allocating goods, so pervades modern life that we scarcely notice it anymore. It is striking that most of the paid queue-jumping schemes we’ve considered—at airports and amusement parks, at Shakespeare festivals and congressional hearings, in call centers and doctors’ offices, on freeways and in national parks—are recent developments, scarcely imaginable three decades ago. The demise of the queue in these domains may seem a quaint concern. But these are not the only places that markets have invaded.

Copyright © 2012 by Michael J. Sandel


Excerpted from What Money Can't Buy by Michael J. Sandel Copyright © 2012 by Michael J. Sandel. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Markets and Morals Market Triumphalism

Everything for Sale

The Role of Markets

Our Rancorous Politics 3

1 Jumping the Queue: Airports, Amusement Parks, Car Pool Lanes

Hired Line Standers

Ticket Scalpers

Concierge Doctors

Markets Versus Queues

Yosemite Campsites

Papal Masses

Springsteen Concerts 17

2 Incentives: Cash for Sterilization

The Economic Approach to Life

Paying Kids for Good Grades

Bribes to Lose Weight

Selling the Right to Immigrate

A Market in Refugees

Speeding Tickets and Subway Cheats

Tradable Procreation Permits

Tradable Pollution Permits

Carbon Offsets

Paying to Kill an Endangered Rhino

Ethics and Economics 43

3 How Markets Crowd Out Morals: Hired Friends

Bought Apologies and Wedding Toasts

The Case Against Gifts

Auctioning College Admission

Coercion and Corruption

Nuclear Waste Sites

Donation Days and Day-Care Pickups

Blood for Sale

Economizing Love 93

4 Markets in Life and Death: Janitors Insurance

Betting on Death

Internet Death Pools

Insurance Versus Gambling

The Terrorism Futures Market

The Lives of Strangers

Death Bonds 131

5 Naming Rights: Autographs for Sale

Corporate-Sponsored Home Runs

Luxury Skyboxes


Bathroom Advertising

Ads in Books

Body Billboards

Branding the Public Square

Branded Lifeguards and Nature Trails

Police Cars and Fire Hydrants

Commercials in the Classroom

Ads in Jails

The Skyboxification of Everyday Life 163

Notes 207

Acknowledgments 233

Index 237

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Reading Group Guide

Should we pay children 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? What about selling citizenship to immigrants who are willing to pay? In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael J. Sandel invites you to join one of the most important ethical debates of our time. Describing our seismic shift from having a market economy to being a market society, Sandel examines the effects of market values on traditionally sacrosanct, nonmarket arenas, including medicine, education, sports, and family life. Sparking provocative questions in an age of widening gaps between rich and poor, this timely book provides rich territory for discussion, providing a comprehensive tour of our market-driven world.

Whether you explore the book with your friends, your colleagues, or other concerned groups, this guide is designed to foster inspiring dialogues. We hope the following topics will enrich your experience as you probe the book’s ultimate question: What is the moral limit of markets?

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 15, 2012

    Anyone who is interested in in the shape and direction of our so

    Anyone who is interested in in the shape and direction of our society should read this book. In What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel provides an interesting counter-point to the market fundamentalism that dominates our society today.

    In the United States we have been encouraged to let markets solve every problem, but there are limitations to the market. What Sandel asks is whether or not puttting something up for sale devalues it. Using examples including human blood, time, and civic involvement, he answers that selling something can cheapen it.

    I think everyone should read this book and think about what kind of society we want to live in, especially as we go through a round of elections where this discussion is being brought into sharp relief. Buy a copy or visit your library and get one. The questions in this book are some of the most important we face, and this is a side of the discussion that is too seldom heard.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2013


    Too few writers work in the area of nonmonetary quantification of value. Sandel makes this an interesting read, presenting several approaches to look at the ways society assigns importance to every part of out lives. Wonderful discussion group starter.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2012


    Peepkit r u here?

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2012

    Hot girl

    Smiles evily. "Dump u." She walks out still nak ed and is picked up by another hot guy. "C u babe." Still smiling and laughing at the "hot" guy she gets carried off into a room with the hotty.

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2012

    Thoughtful perpective


    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 6, 2012

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    Posted November 10, 2012

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    Posted September 30, 2012

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    Posted July 15, 2014

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