Money and morality

If everything has a price, does nothing have a value?

All money tends to corrupt, and absolute money corrupts absolutely.  This is an ancient message.  You can find it in the Bible ("the love of money is the root of all evil"), in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers and Renaissance moralists, and more recently in the Occupy movement that set up camp last year outside St Paul's Cathedral.  This Wednesday, the cathedral was packed for a rather more sedate explanation of the same ideas featuring the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel.

Sandel, currently plugging his new book What Money Can't Buy, has been difficult to avoid in recent days.  His central thesis is twofold.  Firstly, when you put a price on something you alter its intrinsic properties, and this can be morally corrosive.  Secondly, the past few decades have seen a market economy replaced by a "market society" in which "everything is up for sale".  Markets, he says, "are not neutral instruments, they crowd out values worth caring about" - values like altruism, human dignity and the common good.  As a result we have seen a great hollowing-out of communality and public political discourse.

He asks such questions as: is it right to create a market in blood, rather than rely on altruistic donors?  Should unhealthy people be given financial incentives to adopt healthier lifestyles?  Should school pupils be "bribed" to read books or achieve higher marks?  To all these questions Wednesday's audience answered an emphatic "no", which suggests that Sandel is, at least in terms of public opinion, pushing at an open door.  

This may explain the tremendous popularity he now enjoys.  (The Guardian described him the other day as "currently the most effective communicator of ideas in English" and suggested that his latest book "should be the bedside companion of every Miliband aide".)  The free market "experiment" of the past few decades has led to rising inequality and an economic disaster, the only beneficiaries of which would seem to be a handful of already wealthy bankers.  We should not be surprised if Sandel's deeply traditional complaints about the corrosive effect of money on the human soul find a ready echo, especially when voiced in a cathedral whose history and location give it a somewhat ambiguous relationship with wealth.

The idea that money has destroyed all vestige of civic virtue was hackneyed already in Roman times.  For all Sandel's current vogue on the progressive Left, his message is inherently a conservative one, in that it implicitly looks back to a Golden Age before money ruined everything.  Another way of saying this is that there's nothing new about the "market society".

One of Sandel's examples relates to privately-run prisons in California in which convicts with sufficient means can upgrade to a better cell.  This was standard practice in 18th century London.  Also popular in the 18th century was the "tontine", a form of gambling in which a group of people pooled their resources and the last one left alive collected the jackpot: not too dissimilar, in essence, from the market in third-party life insurance that Sandel criticises today.

But then to talk about the 18th century is to realise just how much more thoroughgoing the marketisation of society used to be.  From the horrors of the slave-trade and the near-slavery of indentured labour, to the open purchase of Parliamentary seats through "rotten boroughs", almost everything was up for sale.  Commissions in the British army and civil service appointments were bought, rather than given on merit, well into the 19th century.  What we think of as basic public services such as policing and the upkeep of roads were wholly private or at best put out to tender. And it's unlikely to be a coincidence that prostitution in the 18th century was vastly more extensive and exploitative than anything seen today.  

The present-day "market society", for all its deficiencies, is a pale shadow of the ruthless and money-driven world of two or three centuries ago.  Sandel is squeamish about students hiring out their foreheads to advertisers or paying homeless people to stand all day in queues so that a richer and busier person can get into Congressional hearings.  There used to be an actual trade in human beings.  Things aren't likely to get that bad again, however badly things go in Greece.

At least when something has a price it shows that someone puts a value on it.  Not charging for goods or services can lead to problems of a different order.   The BBC's Stephanie Flanders, taking part in the debate at St Paul's, pointed out that in the age of the internet, many goods and services which would in the past have been paid for are available for free.  The thought struck me that perhaps not charging for a service, or expecting things to be free, can be at least as morally corrupting of basic goods as Sandel believes money is.  

If people expect to, and can, receive their news and entertainment for free, why should they pay for it?  And how can the producers make an honest living?  The Bank of England's Andrew Bailey contends that free banking distorts the market, is less transparent and leads to poorer service to consumers. It is at least an arguable case.  And as regards to "free" internet services like Google and Facebook, it has well been said that the non-paying users are not the customers, but are themselves the product.

Is money the source of the problems Sandel identifies, or rather a convenient scapegoat for human beings who can't bear too much reality?  You can't buy a friend, he points out, because if you know you've paid someone to be nice to you it ceases to be a "real" friendship.  Has he never noticed that rich people tend to have more "friends" than poor ones?  Sandel also raised the example of a professionally written wedding speech.  Would the bride and groom feel quite the same way, he wondered, if they knew that the best man had spent $150 dollars on buying a speech rather than investing his heart and soul by writing it personally?  Perhaps not, but it's not obvious to me why the payment of money in itself is corrupting.  

The problem, surely - if there is a problem - is that the speech is not the best man's own; not that he has paid for it.  I rather doubt that the newlyweds would be happier to learn that the best man had found the speech on a website and simply downloaded it for free.

An American poster from the 19th century. Credit: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder