What Money Can’t Buy

I often struggle with educational initiatives. I’ve always been fiercely independent-minded, and I take exception to people telling me what to think, at least when convincing reasoning is not forthcoming. I’m not entirely sure whether this is helpful or not, but I suspect it may be a by-product of owning the kind of restless mind that education arguably seeks to foster – and perhaps those years of knowing just how crucial autonomy is to the classroom teacher.

Nonetheless, one has a professional duty to take reasoned view, and this I always try to do. And one does, to some extent, have to operate within the system one finds, even it is not entirely to one’s liking. Yet as time progresses, I am increasingly confident that my professional instinct is true; I know I have the moral motives of the educator truly at heart – but this only makes it all the harder when, as not-frequently happens, I recoil instinctively from the directive that is being ordained.

Rationalising one’s instinct is not always easy. This is why I think it is essential that teachers look as widely as possible for their perspectives, including the realms of psychology and philosophy. As I suggested in a previous post, I think it is impossible for a teacher to operate fully within the ethical remit of the profession without a degree of moral idealism.

Michael J. Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy is therefore very helpful.  This considers the moral limits of markets – the critical distinction being between a market economy as means of distributing goods, and a market society, where everything (and everyone) has their price. Sandel argues that the effect of this is the erosion of the moral settlement upon which societies function, and the eclipsing of other more benign behaviour.

Sandel’s arguments are elegantly simple, and offer a clear rationale for anyone who like me, has instinctive misgivings over the application of commercial principles to areas of life where they don’t seem appropriate. They can be summed up as follows:

  1. Intrinsic nature of the ‘commodity’.
  2. The Fairness Principle
  3. The Corruption Argument
  4. The Crowding Effect

The intrinsic nature of the commodity.

There are some qualities in life which naturally resist commercialisation. For example, the essential nature of friendship is altruistic and voluntary, not contingent on financial gain. It is possible to purchase the services of someone who will act in all the ways that a personal friend would, but the presence of a payment corrupts the substance of the relationship. Applying the price mechanism to such activities diminishes them, not the converse.

Education is similar: it too is not a commodity but a quality; not mass-replicable, but unique in each person’s experience. Setting targets for its acquisition, character, delivery and application deny the essential nature of the matter and risk narrowing how and why it is experienced.

The Fairness Principle.

Economics argues that the market is the most efficient way of reconciling supply and demand; Sandel counters that demand cannot be fully expressed through the price mechanism. The willingness to pay is an expression not only of the desire but also the ability to pay – and people do not have this equally, for reasons not always within their control; those who cannot pay are disenfranchised. People who pay premium prices may not be expressing the strongest demand or greatest appreciation, but simply the ability their wealth confers for casual trophy-hunting.  Those who pay to by-pass queues may not be expressing the greatest need, but simply their disdain for social justice.

Sandel argues that fairness is an essential societal construct, which explains why people feel outrage towards those who, for example buy access to politicians, or who engage in other nepotistic behaviour. One might observe this in the way rising property prices within the catchments of popular schools exclude those on lower incomes, thus restricting fair access to what is presented as a universal entitlement – let alone the deceit some will resort to in order to secure a place.

First come first served – or even, dare I say, selection on the grounds of exceptional aptitude – is arguably a fairer way to allocate scarce resources than recourse to the depth of people’s pockets.

The Corruption Argument.

Market principles argue that people should be able to buy and sell anything so long as it does not violate the interests of others. But the corruption argument questions the genuine free will of those who sell things such as their bodily organs, against their own deeper interests. Thus the market can operate counter to human wellbeing, and it tends to discriminate against those with lesser means and fewer choices. Education should not endorse this.

Furthermore, putting a price on priceless things (such as education) changes their nature, and with it the way people value them. Paying for private access to politicians, for example, corrupts the nature of (supposed) democracy; paying for kidneys changes the way people regard their bodies. Sandel argues that this is morally wrong, even in a secular sense, as it inequitably redistributes human wellbeing.

Worst of all, the application of price changes incentives – for example, paying people for hitherto selfless acts alters their motives. Sometimes it even results in less action; for example, paying people to donate blood has been shown to reduce the amount given as people feel their altruism has been corrupted.

Similarly, paying pupils and teachers by results subverts their motives, and in the case of teachers divides their loyalties; just about any other incentive given to teachers to ‘perform’ will compromise their integrity in some way. Furthermore, incentives do not always achieve the desired outcome: the market in carbon offsets does not inevitably change the amount of pollution, simply its source – and there is little evidence that payment significantly boosts exam results.

Compromising the altruism of teachers may have serious effects. Applying market principles to education risks valuing the marketable trappings of education (exam grades) over the more elusive cerebral qualities, which cannot be priced. And the more this happens, the more people will concentrate on the tradable facsimiles at the expense of the real thing.

The crowding principle.

Very simply, given its chance, selfish behaviour can easily displace other more socially desirable motives and actions. I would argue that the self-interest/self-protection instinct created by the regime of inspection, quantification and accountability has crowded out the time-honoured, altruistic principles of teaching.

Sandel argues that while moral arguments remain hard to substantiate, it is inescapable that flourishing human life does depend on attributes such as health, friendship, wisdom and trust that are impossible to price. In fact, applying a price simply dissolves their benefit. He argues that this is a fundamental human experience, which is governed by ethical principles, not economic ones.

I suspect that the greatest objection is to the unprincipled acquisition and (ab)use of wealth, rather than wealth itself. But applying the price mechanism more widely just makes its unscrupulous use all the easier, and in areas where the consequences may be more malign. Sandel’s book explains why I recoil from directives that push education further in an economised direction: they taint the honest principles of this vocation – and with it my own professional ethic.

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8 thoughts on “What Money Can’t Buy

  1. Lots to savour here – thanks… Personal favourite quotes:

    “I think it is impossible for a teacher to operate fully within the ethical remit of the profession without a degree of moral idealism.”

    “Education is …not a commodity but a quality; not mass-replicable, but unique in each person’s experience. Setting targets for its acquisition, character, delivery and application deny the essential nature of the matter and risk narrowing how and why it is experienced.”

    The Fairness Principle… hmm… is inherited ability any more deserving that inherited wealth…? I suppose it is more useful to the rest of us – in the end – to support those with the ability to take us further. Ultimately ‘equality’ is probably the most nightmarish moral dilemma to resolve…

    • The bit on aptitude was my interpretation. Sandel is simply suggesting that the market is no more fair than other approaches, and perhaps less so. He seems to be saying that we should not endorse processes that amplify unfairness.

      One might, I suppose argue that greater ability has more scope to be helpful to humankind than lesser, if used appropriately.

      • “He seems to be saying that we should not endorse processes that amplify unfairness.”

        That is definitely an interesting way to approach it. I think that the justification for prejudicing in favour of ability is as good a reason as any given the conundrum!

  2. I wouldn’t disagree – but perhaps the issue here is what one then does with the advantages so conferred. There is a world of difference between someone who goes on to use their ability to heal the sick and someone who becomes a master criminal.

    But using markets as a social arbitrator may lead to less just outcomes than other criteria – thought this is not the widely-heard mantra of our times. ‘Let the market decide’ has been commonly heard over recent decades, and it has even been applied to social services like health, education and (possibly) public transport, which are not naturally market-orientated.

    Fairness and equality are not necessarily the same thing – though society’s key services should, in my opinion, distribute their services and govern their actions on more just principles than the ability to pay.

    • Ah… yes… fairness… – What you put in, minus what you take out and the hand that was dealt to you in the first place… Not sure you can ever really apply this on any more than a local – case-by-case – level can you…? … In specific situations where you can really make some call as to what seems to be really just? If you try doing it on a societal level, you either discriminate in favour of disadvantage – without any reference to what people have done to earn it (hence the criticisms of the welfare state), or you reward what people achieve without reference to starting points.

      As I tend to say to children who complain “It’s not fair!” – “Well… Life’s not fair – sometimes it works for you, sometimes it works against you …”

      In all honesty, I think it’s this – even more than “The Problem of Evil” – which has put me off agonising over moral philosophy! 😀

      • Well yes, this risks getting very bogged down. But all I really mean is that as teachers we should try to operate to the highest standards of ethical behaviour that we can manage. That means modelling even-handedness, honesty and I would say genuine altruism of intent in our professional and intellectual dealings. I don’t appreciate it when the main challenges to that come from the system itself.

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