The modern trend to monetize everything ignores civilizational wisdom

A contribution from Ramaswamy Sudarshan (

(with acknowledgement to Michael Sandel (Harvard University)

Civilizations, for good reasons, have an idea of some of the things that are part of nature’s bounty that money ought not be able to buy. Forests, rivers, sanctity of the human body, blood, water, are some of the things that civilizational wisdom recommends that we should protect from monetization. Citizens’ votes should not be bought and sold, for good reasons related to the ideal of self-rule and democracy.

The modern trend to monetize everything ignores civilizational wisdom. This trend has been carried forward the furthest in the United States.

There can be two objections to extending the reach of market valuation and exchange. One is the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of severe inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not necessarily as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest. A peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea in order to feed his starving family, but his agreement is not truly voluntary. He is coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.

A second objection, and more important, objection is an argument from corruption. It points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold for money.

The argument from corruption cannot be met by establishing fair bargaining conditions. If the sale of human body parts is intrinsically degrading, a violation of the sanctity of the human body, then kidney sales would be wrong for rich and poor alike. The objection would hold even without the coercive effect of crushing poverty. The argument from corruption is intrinsic in the sense that it cannot be met by fixing the background conditions within which market exchanges take place. It applies under conditions of equality and inequality alike.

Treating babies as commodities degrades them by using them as instruments of profit rather than cherishing them as persons worthy of love and care. Contract pregnancy also degrades women by treating their bodies as factories and by paying them not to bond with the children they bear. To know whether a good should be subject to market exchange, according to this view, we need to know what mode of valuation is fitting or appropriate to that good. This is different from knowing how much the thing is worth. It involves a qualitative, not just a quantitative judgment. In the cases of surrogacy, baby-selling, and sperm-selling, the ideals at stake are bound up with the meaning of motherhood, fatherhood, and the nurturing of children. Once we characterize the good at stake, it is always a further question whether, or in what respect, market valuation and exchange diminishes or corrupts the character of that good.

With reference to military service, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: wrote “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the state is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home. . . . In a country that is truly free, the citizens do everything with their own arms and nothing by means of money; so far from paying to be exempted from their duties, they would even pay for the privilege of fulfilling them themselves. . . . I hold enforced labour to be less opposed to liberty than taxes.” (The Social Contract, trans. G. D. H. Cole, book 3, ch. 15 (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1973, p. 265).

The argument of corruption by monetization applies to inequalities in society. Aristotle believed held that persons of moderate means make the best citizens. The rich, distracted by luxury and prone to ambition, are unwilling to obey, while the poor, shackled by necessity and prone to envy, are ill suited to rule. A society of extremes “lacks the spirit of friendship” self-government requires. “Community depends on friendship,” he wrote, “and when there is enmity instead of friendship, men will not even share the same path.” (The Politics, trans. and ed. Ernest Barker, book 4, ch. 11, Oxford University Press, 1946, pp. 180–82).

Robert Reich has pointed out that affluent professionals gradually secede from public life into “homogeneous enclaves,” where they have little contact with those less fortunate than themselves. (The Work of Nations, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, pp.249–315). The children of the prosperous enroll in private schools, or relatively homogeneous suburban schools, leaving urban public schools to the poor. Public institutions cease to gather people together across class and race and instead become places for the poor, who have no alternative. As municipal services decline in urban areas, residents and businesses in upscale districts insulate themselves from these effects. They hire private garbage collectors, street cleaners, and private police protection unavailable to the city as a whole. The sale of bottled water has the same consequence of causing a public good, which that should be available to everyone, to disappear and become a privatized commodity.

A politics that emphasizes the civic consequences of inequality may hold greater promise of inspiring the reconstruction of class-mixing public institutions than a politics that focuses on individual choice.”

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