Most people don’t want to be told what to do with their money. It’s their money and they can do whatever they want with it. Well, almost.
You may be able to buy a black-market Oscar, but you can’t buy an Oscar victory. So while it’s your money and you can do what you want with it, not everything is for sale.
Things we may not think of as being for sale are regularly sold. Minnesotans are terrible at zipper merging because they feel like they may be budging in line, but most don’t think twice about paying for the right as a sole driver in the car-pool lane to pass everyone.
We recently had the Final Four here, and while regular tickets were expensive, we have grown accustomed to ticket brokers selling those tickets for breathtaking multiples of the original price.
We all believed that having money would help kids get into some, maybe many, colleges, but we never thought you could buy an SAT score.
I am a firm believer in free markets, but I also believe that people may not fully understand what they are buying.
In his book, “What Money Can’t Buy; The Moral Limits of Markets,” Michael Sandel describes our shift from a market economy to a market society.
He says, “A market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”
Markets are effective in matching willing buyers with willing sellers, and are pretty good about setting prices.
For example, if admission to Harvard were based solely on the capacity to pay for admission, the value of a Harvard degree would diminish.
Markets would be effective in initially increasing the cost of tuition to a level where affluent buyers pay for enrollment, but the world would soon recognize that a Harvard degree is being sold to the highest bidders and would no longer view it the same way.
The degree would be less valuable and eventually drive down the cost of admission. That would be a market response.
Markets serve those who can afford things at prices they are willing to pay.
Those are the conditions: capacity and desire. People may want something that they cannot afford, so they can’t buy it. Others don’t want something they could easily have.
Markets ultimately represent bargaining positions. This is one of the places where things can become unfair. Someone with a lot of resources is not in the same bargaining position as someone with much less.
What if a low-income person sold a kidney to someone with a lot of money? In theory, a market-driven transaction took place.
That person sold an organ he probably wouldn’t need for money to help pay the rent for a few months. Does everyone win?
Or what if putting a price on something actually diminishes its value? Think about work you did in which you were completely engaged.
Maybe it was a special project on which your boss gave you autonomy and authority.
You were completely proud of the work you did and felt like it was a great result. And then your boss gave you a spot bonus for the project.
The spot bonus may actually decrease your satisfaction because you are now focused on whether you got paid what you think you deserved. In essence, the payment corrupted the value of your work.
Here are some things to think about when you are making buying decisions that make you somewhat uncomfortable:
Who is affected? Legality aside, the people who paid for their children to get into private schools by having a coach shepherd their application had a few affected constituents: those wait-listed students who did not get in, the school whose academic integrity was called into question, the children who were unaware of what their parents were doing, etc.
Does the transaction seem fair? How are we using our power or being subjected to the power of others in the negotiation?
Does the nature of the transaction change? With charity, what are our expectations when we give? Are we expecting something in return or giving freely from the heart?
Markets are awfully good, but they are not perfect. Before people tell you what to do with your money, decide on your own whether you are comfortable with what you are buying and the way you are buying it.
Ross Levin is the chief executive and founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina.