August 9, 2009

morality and markets

question: are there some things money can't - or shouldn't - be able to buy? or, in other words, are there some things that the market should not regulate?

an answer this time comes from the aspen ideas festival, a program put on by the aspen ideas institute where great minds from all over the world come to discuss the most meaningful questions in contemporary (american) life. one lecture by Michael Sandel, a professor of government who teaches a famous class called "Justice", discusses how markets should (or should not) be used to address questions with moral undertones including:

1. surrogacy: should there be any additional regulations? If a woman consents to carry the child of another couple, provided that the couple pays her a hefty amount of money, is this just the market working in everyone's favor? The woman gets a huge amount of money, which if she is a woman in India, where surrogacy for american parents is popular because it is less expensive, could be more than she could make in fifteen years. The couple gets the child they've always wanted.
*possible objections:
a) Is this sliding on a slippery slope towards creating virtual factories of uteri from desperate women - for whom the potential paycheck is so important that they will go through nine months of creating a life to which they will hold no claim?
b) How can we (and who is we?) be sure that these women are consenting, and are not being coerced in some way or another into this type of work? Especially in situations in which economic disparity is so great, questioning whether there is coercion is incredibly important.

2. paying children to read: in some school districts, children are being paid for every book they finish and/or for every test on which they score well. Dr. Sandel posits that although this might increase the amount of reading these children do in the short run, it teaches them to regard the reward from reading as monetary, and they may therefore be less likely to read if there is no direct monetary gain. One example he cites is a study conducted by economists in Israel on daycare centers. In a group of daycare centers, some parents were late to pick up their children. This was of course disruptive as a teacher had to stay late, the children were fussy, etc. So the economists decided in half of the daycare centers to implement a fine for picking one's child up late, expecting that this would provide added incentive for parents to be on time. However, the exact opposite occurred: more parents began picking their children up late. Dr. Sandel states that the late fine acted as a fee, replacing not supplementing the moral obligation parents felt to their children or the teachers to be on time.

this has huge implications on new ideas in circulation right now using markets to regulate systems that deal with moral situations. One example is cap and trade for emissions - if we allow people to pay for excess emissions, will it replace instead of supplement, the moral obligation to produce fewer emissions, with the end result of increasing emissions guilt-free?

There are also questions involving new health care regulations - if we allow people to elect not to pay for health insurance and simply pay a fine instead, will people then take advantage of emergency rooms and government funding (medicaid, etc) without feeling any moral obligation to contribute?

"Every economic decision has a moral consequence."
-Pope Benedict XVI

No comments:

Post a Comment