Money And Meaning

The things we cherish, admire, or respect are not always the things we are willing to pay for. Indeed, they may be cheapened by being associated with money. It is fair to say that the worth of the things we love is better measured by our unwillingness to pay for them. Consider, for example, love itself. A civilized person might climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest river, or cross the hottest desert for love, sweet love. He might do anything, indeed, except be willing to pay for it.

The Church once auctioned off indulgences. It sold future shares in Heaven at the margin with a very favorable discount rate. Was it a good idea to establish a market in salvation? Of course it was. How else can you determine how much an infinity of bliss, discounted by the probability that God does not exist, is worth?31 The Church membership, however, grew a little disillusioned when it saw that the favors of the Lord were auctioned for silver and gold. This disillusionment was one cause of the Reformation.

The things we are unwilling to pay for are not worthless to us. We simply think we ought not to pay for them.32 Love is not worthless. We would make all kinds of sacrifices for it. Yet a market in love - or in anything we consider "sacred" - is totally inappropriate. These things have a dignity rather than a price.33

The things that have a dignity, I believe, are in general the things that help us to define our relations with one another. The environment we share has such a dignity. The way we use and the way we preserve our common natural heritage help to define our relation or association with one another and with generations in the future and in the past.

Let me return, now, to the example with which I began. My students, as I said, are pulled one way when they are asked to make a consumer choice about whether or not to patronize the Disney resort. That question goes to their wants and desires simply as individuals. They are pulled another way when asked to make a political decision about whether the United States should turn wilderness areas into ski resorts. That decision calls on their conception of the values we share or the principles we respect as a nation.

Should we base environmental policy on the interests individuals may act on as consumers or on the values that they may agree on as citizens? Our policy may be "rational" either way. We may have a "rational" policy in an economic sense if we limit the role of law to protecting rights and correcting market failures. We should then assume that the ends of policy making are simply "given" in the preferences consumers are willing to pay to satisfy. Alternatively, we might suppose that a "rational" policy advances a certain conception of equality - or meets some other condition or criterion laid down in advance.

We may have a policy that is rational in what we may call a deliberative sense, however, if we strive to base law on principles and ideals that reflect our best conception of what we stand for and respect as a nation. This kind of rationality depends on the virtues of collective problem solving; it considers the reasonableness of ends in relation to the values they embody and the sacrifices we must make to achieve them. This deliberative approach respects the constitutional rights that make it possible for people to contribute as equals to the political process, but it asserts no a priori political theory about the purposes of public policy.

This approach assumes, on the contrary, that the values on which we base social policy are objects of public inquiry. They are not to be derived (as they would be in an economic calculus) by aggregating exogenous preferences, or (as they might be in a political philosophy) from metaphysical truths about the nature of persons. Thus, the general goals of public policy are to be determined through a political process in which citizens participate constrained only by rights of the kind protected by the Constitution. These goals are not known beforehand by a vanguard party of political economists or by an elite corps of philosopher-kings.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment