It seems that every year, someone publishes a book on the moral limits of markets. Peter Jaworski and I will most likely be writing a book responding to these other books, trying to show that most of their objections fail or are misdiagnoses of the problem. Here’s a very abbreviated taste of one topics we’ll be discussing:
Sandel argues that queuing distributes goods equally, while markets distribute according to ability and willingness to pay. Since people have unequal ability to pay, markets distribute goods unequally. They are in that way unfair compared to queuing.
We think Sandel is mistaken on multiple levels. First, substituting queuing for a market just substitutes the currency of time for the currency of money. Sure, we all have 24 hours in a day. But we are not really all equally rich in time. Some of us have massive opportunity costs for our time. For some of us, giving up an hour to stand in line really is equivalent to paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Queuing favors the retired, the unemployed, those with few responsibilities, and the irresponsible. It is not essentially egalitarian or fair. In particular, it tends to punish people who take on the burden of contributing much to society, while rewarding those who do not.* In short, in the short run, markets favor those with disposable income, while queuing favors those with disposable time.
But that’s just the short run. And this is Sandel’s main problem. He fails to see how the dynamics of prices and markets work. Over the long run, markets drive the prices of most goods we want to consume way down. This means that all of us are in a real sense spending less time in getting those goods, more of us are getting them, and we are getting more of them. It is basic economics to say that our standard of living is higher now because the costs of pretty much everything in terms of time and labor is much lower now.For instance, between 1835 and 1850, the price of light in Britain in terms of average labor hours was cut in half. Between 1850 and 1890, it was further cut by about 97%. Quite literally, we can buy more light with 10 seconds of labor than a caveperson could have bought with 60 hours of labor.
John Rawls argued that we should (or at least may) depart from equal distributions when doing so is to the advantage of the least advantaged. However, in the long run, distributing things via queues has no real history of meeting people’s needs or helping the least advantaged. Even in the short run, it rarely does.
Sandel and others might complain that markets allow people to buy status goods and thus to buy status. But this again misdiagnoses the problem. Unfortunately, people (including most anti-commodification theorists) are status-seekers, and they seek status goods both through markets and outside markets. (Ironically, complaining about status- seeking is itself frequently a status-seeking activity, but that does not make complaining about status-seeking inherently objectionable.)
Still, allowing people to purchase status through markets has a unique feature—it generally makes those people pay for the infrastructure to bring these former status goods to the poor. Those who purchased a Mercedes S-Class in 1980 end up subsidizing the Nissan Versa in 2013. They paid to make luxury features in luxury cars standard features in economy cars. We should expand our time horizon, and care about the prospects of the poor intergenerationally, and not just intragenerationally. We do not do that by asking people to stand in line.
*A good example of this: When I was 20, I contributed hardly anything, but I had plenty of time to stand in line for “free” tickets to Shakespeare in the park. I certainly contribute much more now at 33 than I did at 20, but I don’t have time to stand in line for such tickets. Distributing via queuing punishes my 33-year-old self for taking on the burden of a job, and rewards my 20-year-old self for not doing so.