Epstein on Friedman and Sandel

Michael Sandel Is Wrong on Markets...
Richard A. Epstein
The New York Times
May 15, 2012

Rich in unintended commercial irony, Thomas Friedman proudly proclaimed in the New York Times this weekend that “This Column is Sponsored by No One.” He then went on to give a huge publicity boost to his childhood friend Michael Sandel, through his uncritical and free endorsement of the Harvard philosopher’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

It would have been easy to write a different and more informative book under Sandel’s evocative title, by stressing the many principled limits on buying and selling that are, and should be, accepted all across the political spectrum: It is wrong to buy and sell other individuals, because it necessarily compromises their individual autonomy; it is equally immoral to hire a hit man to kill another person; less dramatically, it is wrong and illegal to pass off one’s own goods under the brand name of a superior competitor; it is also flatly illegal today to enter into collusive agreements to rig markets by dividing territories or fixing prices; and it is flatly wrong and illegal to bribe public officials for permits or to buy votes in a public election.

The set of prohibitions on market transactions also extends to a broad class of “merit goods” that lose all value if they are bought and sold. To take one simple example, high school seniors are surely entitled to pay for instruction on how to improve their SAT scores. But it is beyond the pale for them to send in a large check to the Educational Testing Service to receive a high SAT score. The same is true for grades on every kind of test imaginable, which only have value if they measure the intellectual ability of the people who take them.

Richard A. Epstein