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7 February 2018

What money can't buy?

Whether or not the collapse of Carrillion will serve as a turning point in the current obsession with outsourcing and converting anything and everything into a marketable commodity, is too early to say. At the very least, more people are now debating the wisdom of being wedded to a philosophy that dictates the market will always deliver the best solution or service. It brought to mind a short blog I wrote some years ago about the intrinsic value of sharing things. It included a short anecdote from the brilliant Michael Sandel who’s always worth listening to.

By Michael Sandel

To share: to participate in, use, enjoy, or experience jointly or in turns. When something is shared, to my mind, something tremendously positive happens. Cooperation is required, people have to talk to one another, to consider the needs of others, to give as well as take. The notion of shared space, whether the space in question is a building, a parcel of land, an area of sea or even the sky, implies a degree of common understanding and mutual agreement between all parties as to how that space should be used, now and in the future. But opportunities to enjoy shared space seem increasingly under threat these days.


Before so much of modern life became subject to the ideology of the ‘market’, our relationship with the natural world and its resources must have been fundamentally different. With no concept of ownership, private or otherwise, with none of the drivers that are currently so dominant and which seek to maximise personal advantage at the expense of those around them, our behaviour must have been determined by unspoken rules or a natural sense of ‘justice’ in terms how we made use of and shared the space and the resources within them. Shared space in those dim and distant days must have been as natural as the air we breathed. But once market thinking entered these fields of human activity, the capacity to share became damaged for ever.


Michael Sandel in his book What Money Cant Buy: The Moral Limits of the Market, describes this process by citing the example of an Israeli Day Care Centre. The Centre responded to a problem with parents turning up late to collect their children by introducing fines. The result? Late pick-ups increased. Parents turned up late, paid the fine, and thought no more of it; the fine had turned into a fee. The fear of disapproval and of doing the wrong thing was based on non-monetary values, and was a stronger force than mere cash. The daycare centre went back to the old system, but parents kept turning up late, because the introduction of market values had killed the old ideas of collective responsibility. Once the old "norm" of turning up on time had been marketised, it was impossible to change back (1).


I believe that most people have a natural preference to live in a state of sharing rather than one which is wholly dominated by market values and indeed the extent to which we lead happy and fulfilled lives is, in large part, determined by this. This is not to deny the important contribution that market values have played in creating the modern world, just that there are many areas of life where it is simply better that market thinking plays no part, and that we as human beings should allow ourselves to follow our instincts, and make our contribution towards a common good – a shared space – just because we can.

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