Tetzel on Craigslist: Commodification and the Demise of the Commons

In his incisive and thought-provoking new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel invites us to step back and take stock of the results of the rapid expansion of market logic into every area of life that the last generation has witnessed.  Economics has transformed itself from a discipline concerned with the production, exchange, and allocation of material goods and services to a master-science claiming to describe the logic of all human social relations in terms of cost-benefit analyses.  In tandem with this theoretical shift has come the increasing subjection of areas of life once governed by non-market norms to the logic of free exchange driven by supply and demand.  Many today, including (perhaps especially?) many Christians may have difficulty in seeing what is wrong with this trajectory—after all, doesn’t this represent the triumph of free, voluntary social relations over against coercive, top-down ones (for a critique of this gross oversimplification, see here)? 

 Inasmuch as the logic of the market, though, is amoral and nonjudgmental—it doesn’t matter what you want and why as long as you’re willing to pay for it—Christians should be deeply concerned, and should heed Sandel’s call to bring morality back into the picture, asking about the moral consequences of subjecting more and more of our lives to the logic of exchange (especially as Sandel himself does not provide a theological basis for this moral concern).  Accordingly, I want to reflect here on the first set of phenomena he examines, “Jumping the Queue,” from a more explicitly theological standpoint.


In his first chapter, Sandel surveys at a variety of cases, around the world, in which the “ethic of the queue”—first come, first served—has been replaced by the “ethic of the market.”  The examples range from the relatively innocuous (the option to pay extra for a “fast track” pass at an amusement park) to the somewhat more troubling (the option for solo drivers to pay extra to use the carpool fast lane in crowded cities) to the downright dirty (lobbyists paying homeless people to stand in line for them overnight so they can be assured a place in Congressional hearings).  

From the standpoint of the Christian ethical tradition, these developments might be described as a “demise of the commons.”  As I have discussed at length on this blog before, the Christian ethical tradition long insisted on the priority of common use over private property.  That didn’t mean that private property was unjustified, but it meant that it did have to be justified.  It wasn’t a self-evident, self-justifying fixture of the natural order.  For the Christian, God has created the world for the use of all his creatures, and above all, for the use of mankind.  Since all men are created equal, the world’s resources are intended to provide equally for the needs of all.  As an institution, then, private property is to be justified on the basis that it can most effectively facilitate the use of the earth to meet the needs of all.  This being the case, any given holder of private property possesses his title on the moral condition that it be used not for his mere private benefit, but for the community at large.  The ongoing commitment to common use may be demonstrated in a private property economy in at least three ways: 1) by the use of private property in such a way that its fruits accrue to the benefits of others—preeminently employees and customers; that is to say, if I am the proud possessor of an apple orchard, I can ensure that the orchard serves common use by paying the apple-pickers a good wage and by selling the produce on to customers at a just price—but not, say, by intentionally allowing half the apples to rot so as to drive up the price of the others and make a better profit; 2) by the redistribution of the profits of private property to society at large, or to the needy—this can occur through taxation, or through voluntary giving to charity, or both; 3) by the preservation of certain areas—whether physical spaces, particular resources or services, or kinds of social relations—from private appropriation, maintaining them as common resources which everyone can use within the constraints of certain rules of fairness (rivers and oceans, for instance, are generally treated this way).  

 A good economy will combine all three.  The second, I would suggest, is the worst, because it does not necessarily challenge the logic of private right—you can do whatever you want with your property, and make as much money as you want, just share a little of your plunder with the rest of us when you’re done, will you?  When voluntary charity is the form of redistribution, the selfish logic can in fact be reinforced, as the giver thinks of himself as a magnanimous benefactor sharing from what is rightfully his alone, rather than someone recognizing the claims of others on the fruits of the earth.  Nonetheless, society today favors the second most of all, whether in its coercive forms (as the left prefers) or its voluntary (as the right prefers), because it is the least intrusive on the logic of private possession.  The third used to be recognized in many ways and institutions throughout society, but these are being steadily eroded.  Sandel’s examples draw particular attention to this phenomenon, particularly notable in the practice of ticket scalping for free public events or services (in China, scalpers wait in line for $2 doctor-appointment tickets, and then sell them to the desperately ill for much higher prices; in New York, free Shakespeare in the Park community theatre tickets are resold on Craigslist for $125).  Deeming such public services inefficient, we increasingly prefer to withdraw them from the sphere of common use and auction them off to the highest bidder.  Perhaps this tendency is an inevitable result of the Lockean logic within which we have long justified private property.  For Locke, private property exists not as a means to common use, but as an extension of our right of self-possession.  We have an inalienable right to ourselves and our own actions; therefore, why not to those things with which we have “mixed” ourselves in the form of our labor?  A free community theatre presents itself as the possession of the whole public, which we are free to come and share in, but which we cannot simply appropriate and make it our own.  But if Locke is right, why not?  My money, as the product of my labor, is the extension of myself, and there is no reason to appropriate to my own exclusive use whatever my money can buy, whether it be the fast lane or a ticket to a papal Mass ($200 on Craigslist for Benedict XVI’s first visit to the States).


In embracing this logic, and asking, “Where’s the harm?” Protestants are forgetting their theological heritage.  After all, more than anything else, the Reformation was a rejection of the commodification of religion, the subjection of God’s grace to the logic of exchange and private acquisition.  Late medieval Catholicism, after all, did a booming trade in souls and spiritual benefits.  Indeed, the phenomena of “jumping the queue” which Sandel documents has its precise complement in the indulgence trade which sprung up in the late Middle Ages, and the many other ways by which those willing to pay could speed their souls to heaven—almsgiving, funding private masses, even hiring surrogates to fight in a crusade.  The rich were able to buy a fast-pass to heaven, to “jump the queue” of purgatory.  Why does this trouble us?  Well, the issue of inequality, as I have just hinted, is obviously part of the problem, and Luther’s war against indulgences was motivated in large part by his anger at the oppression of the poor it entailed.  The rich nobleman, with a modest outlay, could pave his golden highway to heaven without great difficulty, while the mass of poor peasants felt shut out of the kingdom, scrimping and saving their meager resources to purchase indulgences.  Sandel, of course, draws attention to the same problem of inequality in the phenomena he looks at.  The queue is the great equalizer.  The richest must wait as long as the poorest to go through security at the airport.  The poorest has just as much opportunity to see Shakespeare in the Park as the richest.  Where the ethic of the queue dominates, income inequality is not a major issue, because the poor man’s lower income does not bar him from access.  He has rights of common use.  But the more the ethic of the queue is replaced with the ethic of the market, the greater the benefits of the rich.

To apply this logic to salvation, as the late medieval Church did, was to utterly corrupt the grace of God.  The Christian faith is not a private possession to be bought and sold.  God is not a marketable commodity.  In response, Luther preached a spiritual economy of free grace, of a great common spiritual possession that we were invited to enter into and share in.  Just as the physical world was created for the common use of mankind, not for the purpose of being parceled off to the highest bidder, so our heavenly inheritance was a shared possession to which we were given a birthright by the grace of Jesus Christ, not a store of merit to be purchased by those who could afford it.  

But as this picture shows, the problem is not just inequality.  Conservatives, indeed, would reject Sandel’s concern about inequality and would defend the onward march of commodification on the basis that we live in a meritocracy, that the rich are rich because they’ve earned it, and the poor are poor because they haven’t.  Everyone has, in principle, an equal chance to get those Shakespeare in the Park tickets even if they cost $125, because everyone has an equal chance to make that money, if they’re just willing to sweat and toil enough for their slice of the pie.  Let’s ignore for now how little this picture resembles reality.  The problem is, as Sandel argues, that more than just inequality is at stake.  Even if everyone had equal opportunity to buy and sell children, for example, doesn’t mean they should.  Some things simply shouldn’t be treated as commodities, because this flies in the face of their proper nature, corrupting the way we view them.  Children are an obvious and extreme example, but perhaps, he suggests, the same concern applies even to community theatre or papal masses.  Some things lose their real value when we try to put an exchange value on them.

Again, the case of Luther’s protest is instructive.  Inequality was not the only problem with the late medieval religious economy.  After all, you didn’t have to be rich.  It was handy to be rich, because then you could get the benefits without working; but if you were poor, you could still get in the fast lane to heaven too—if you worked hard enough: fasting, praying, pilgrimage, deeds of charity, rituals, etc.  Ultimately, the Church could counter, it was a meritocracy, not an aristocracy.  But that was precisely the problem.  Luther understood that this corrupted the whole nature of what was on offer.  The favor of God wasn’t something you worked for, but something you were freely given.  It was something that belonged to you by virtue of being in the family of God—in Christ, we are sons and fellow-heirs, not hired laborers trying to earn our keep.  


Perhaps by thinking through the theological implications of how the logic of exchange corrupts our relationship with God, privatizing us into self-interested agents, we may gain insight into how the logic of exchange, when extended beyond its proper boundaries can tend to corrupt our human relationships, substituting the agenda of acquisition for the agenda of participation.  


Addendum: An additional thought—lurking behind all this is the question of plenitude vs. scarcity.  That, of course, is the major disanalogy between what Sandel is talking about and what Luther was dealing with.  God’s grace really is infinite, which is why it’s so wrong to treat it as a finite commodity to be apportioned out, whereas Chinese medical appointment tickets are genuinely finite.  Not only do you not have to pay for Jesus, you don’t have to stand in line for him either.  There is no limit on how many people can participate in the common good that is God’ s grace, but there is a limit to how many people can participate in the common good that is Shakespeare in the Park. It is the scarcity of something that convinces economists that it should be apportioned by market mechanisms.  Of course, I think that it is precisely our sense that certain things should not be scarce, should be treated as unlimited goods, that in many cases informs our sense that it is wrong to pay for them.  Is this just self-delusion, trying to pretend that things aren’t scarce when they are?  Or ought we to cultivate such an attitude?  To what extent is the perception of scarcity self-fulfilling?  All such questions I shall merely raise for now, not attempt to answer.

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