Not for Sale

Article excerpt

We have allowed too many things in our world to be priced.

From the beginning of civilization people have made a distinction between goods that can be freely exchanged in the market and goods that are too close to us to be bought and sold. Spiritual goods are tainted or destroyed by the attempt to purchase them, and if they have a price it is measured by sacrifice and self-denial. Thus it is with love, happiness, and sacred things. And thus it is with family, community, and culture. These are goods that have been ring-fenced against "market forces," and which we believe it would be sacrilege to buy and sell. The medieval trade in indulgences caused such scandal precisely because it sold what cannot be purchasednamely, redemption. And when people finally rose in rebellion against this abuse of spiritual values, European society was turned upside down.

Some goods, like food and clothes, have instrumental value; other goods, like children and works of art, are valuable in themselves. Love is priceless, not because its price is higher than we can pay, but because it cannot be purchased but only earned. Of course, you can purchase the simulacrum of love, and there are people who are accomplished providers. But love that is purchased is only a pretense. Goods like love, beauty, consolation, and the sacred are spiritual goods: they have a value, but no price.

Economists don't like spiritual goods. Such goods are connected to us not as things to be used, consumed, and exchanged but as parts of what we are. To lose them is to lose ourselves. Of course needy people have often sold their children into slavery, desecrated their loves, and denied their faith. But it is need, not price, that compelled them. In a world in which religious faith is wavering and cultural values are insecure, people increasingly think in economic terms. When goods are priced, you can decide between them. But this means that they can also be exchanged for the baubles of the marketplace.

This is what has happened with sex. You cannot buy or seil sexual love, but you can buy and sell itscheapened substitutes. Communities have, in the past, tried to protect themselves against this, recognizing that the future of society depends on protecting sexual love from the market. They have never been more than partially successful. But the wall of decency, even if thin in places and easily undermined, remained in place until recent times, and parents could be sure that their children would not grow up as they grow up today, with the view that sex is to be consumed and exchanged for the sake of pleasure.

Once we raise the question of intrinsic values, however, we realize that many other aspects of human life are at risk from the market. Such is the message of the environmental movement- or at least, the message that we can all agree with. We have allowed too many things in our world to be pricedthe land and the oceans, the air and the climate.

A century and a half ago John Muir in America and John Ruskin in England initiated the movement to save our world from spoliation. They rightly understood that nothing would be saved if we simply defend it on economic grounds. A valley might be useful as farmland, but it might be even more useful as a reservoir or an opencast mine. Only if we recognize the intrinsic value of nature will it be proof against our prédations; hence we should esteem landscapes and forests for their beauty, for their sacred quality, for the part they play in defining us and ennobling our settlements, rather than for their use. Only this will keep the market at bay and prevent us from consuming our world.

No force has been as strong in protecting human sexual love from the market as the force of religion, which elevates sex to a sacrament and forbids its abuse. Likewise, no force has been so strong in protecting the environment as the religious sentiments evoked by Ruskin and Muir. Almost everyone feels that there are places, scenes, landscapes, and townscapes that are threatened with desecration, and whose integrity and beauty must be respected with a quasi-religious veneration. …