This is a bit of an old article, but I just happened to stumble across Michael Sandel’s article from The Atlantic “What Isn’t for Sale?” which is excerpted from his recent book. The argument basically boils down to his objection that there are things that are for sale now that weren’t for sale back in “the good old days.” Many objections can and have been raised to the argument.
I’m interested in a particular issue though–is his description of the good old days really that good? It seems to me that this is the sort of gauzy idealization of the past that is typical of many of those who bemoan elements of modern culture. So what I’m wondering is what things are not for sale today that used to be for sale in the good old days. I can think of at least two pretty significant things. First is marriage. For much of human existence, marriage was primarily a financial transaction between two families through dowry systems and the like. Today, since modernity has unleashed the wild dogs of capitalism, individuals are no longer held captive by their parents threat to withhold family fortunes if they don’t marry an approved partner because now you always have the option to make it on your own. Second is indentured servitude. The democratization of credit enables people to essentially borrow against their future incomes so that even those without a penny to their name can start their lives as independent people. (One suspects that Sandel probably is no fan of the democratization of credit either, pining for the supposed good old days of that too).
My sense is that the complaint that “eveything’s for sale” today, unlike the good old days, is really just based on a selective reading of history–well, not actually reading history at all. Just as the belief that the current generation isn’t as frugal as the prior generation has been a refrain for at least 140 years in the United States one suspects that if you go back in time you’ll find anti-commercial complaints similar to Sandel’s.
But I do have a question for readers–can you think of other things (along the lines of marriage and indentured servitude) where things used to be for sale (expressly or implicitly) and today they are not?