Over the past four decades, we have shifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society, without even realising it. There is a difference between a market economy and a market society.
A market economy is a tool for organising productive activity, it has brought prosperity and affluence to many countries. But a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where previous non-market values are either replaced or affected by market values.
As countries continued to welcome market/marketing mechanisms in their economic operation, market values kept having more and more influence on social life. Today, buying and selling no longer applies to material goods only, it has great control over our whole life, even our responses have turned into commodities to some extent.
We live in a time when except for a few, all are up for sale now. For instance, a prisoner in California can get a prison-cell upgrade only for $90 per night. In many cities in the US, there are line standing companies who will hire homeless people or someone to wait in a line so the hirer can take the place just on time without the trouble of standing there for hours and hours.
There are even private military companies that will fight for or against a country. In Iraq or Afghanistan, there were more paid military contractors on the grounds than the US military troops. In some schools in Dallas, underachieving second-graders were offered $2 for every book they read, to encourage reading.
For two reasons, we should worry about a society where everything is a sellable commodity. One is inequality and the other is corruption.
In a society where everything is up for sale - when compared to privileged people, life becomes difficult for people of modest means. The more money can buy, the more scopes for inequality to be created in the society.
Even where everyone is supposed to be treated, facilitated equally, money causes inequality, such as in education, health facilities, law, public gatherings, etc, and thus question the moral obligations of society.
In marketising non-marketable values, corruption becomes not just an issue about inequality or fairness, but also about the destructive tendency of markets. Putting a price on good things sometimes can corrupt them.
Because markets do not only allocate commodities, they also create a certain attitude toward those. For example, paying children to read a book may make them read more but it might also teach them to see reading as a chore and not as a source of satisfaction or enjoyment. One interesting thing that came out of the Dallas school experiment was that the children started reading more, but at the same time, they started reading smaller books.
Economists often assume that markets do not affect the goods that are being exchanged. This assumption might be true enough for material goods but it might not be same for social practices or non-material domains worth caring about.
In a Swiss town, inhabitants were asked if government chose to use their town for a nuclear waste site, would they agree to the offer or not - 51 percent of the people said they would agree. Then they were told that they will be given around $8,000 yearly as compensation and were asked if they will still agree to the offer. Surprisingly, the percentage dropped to 25.
The surveying team asked why they changed their decision. They said, at first they agreed to the offer from their civic responsibility but as money was offered, it felt like a bribe or a deal and they did not want to risk their families in exchange for money.
Initially, wild spreading of markets was believed to be for public good but eventually, people started doubting and questioning this belief. People started to sense that markets have moved from morals. Some felt that greed is the main reason for immoral market activities.
However, Harvard University Law School professor Michael J. Sandel believes that the core problem is not greed but the fact that market values have replaced traditional non-market values of our lives, such as civic responsibilities, compassion, interest, commitment, etc.
And one of most important value that is undermined by marketisation is sense of commonality, sense of community. Not everyone has to wait on the long lines today, not everyone's children go to the same school, not everyone goes to the same malls; none of these are any longer class mixing experience.
These effects of marketising are not good for democracy, neither for the privileged ones nor for the unprivileged ones; it is not for the common good.
It is time to argue and decide where market belongs and where it does not, instead of only talking absurdly about greed. Questioning the moral limits of markets will allow us, as a community, to think about where markets serve the public good and where they do not.
This does not indicate that everyone will agree with everything but at least, this argument will make us more aware of the price that we actually pay to live in a society where everything is considered as a commodity.