Take a look at this list, helpfully compiled by Michael Sandel:
- In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a prison-cell upgrade costing $90 a night. This gives them access to a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to “disturb” them – read: rape them.
- Couples believing that their infertility impedes their right to a family life can buy an Indian surrogate mother for $8,000, less than one-third the going rate in the United States. Similar transactions take place between patients in need of organs and willing donors, the latter of course very often poor and desperate.
- In the U.S., patients who want easy access to a good doctor can buy their doctor’s cellphone number for $1,500 and up per year. A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees.
- People wanting to emigrate to the U.S. can do so when they invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment. This makes them eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.
- A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son’s education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead.
In all of these cases – and probably in many others I’m not aware of – people pay money or sell themselves – or parts of themselves – in order to have their rights protected, or they get paid in order to help others secure their rights.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s distraught by this. It’s true that rights protection costs money – a lot of money – and a large proportion of what we pay in taxes is used by governments to protect our rights (taxes pay for a police protection, judicial protection, welfare, healthcare, education and other rights). So why shouldn’t individuals be able to bypass the state and use their money to secure their rights when the state or others fail to do so? (By “others” I refer to NGO’s, international institutions, private charities etc.). After all, everyone should be happy with better rights protection, no?
Well, yes, unless we start something that will lead to systematically unequal rights protection. We don’t want the wealthy to have better rights protection than others, or to be able to continuously improve their marginal protection (e.g. a gated community as a defense against unlikely attackers) while the poor are left with almost no protection at all. Slightly modifying the meaning of a standard expression: might shouldn’t be right. The advantage of outsourcing rights protection to the state is that we pool resources and use them where they are most needed. The market isn’t always the best place to allocate rights protection.
Even the rich will consent to this. After all, they may be able to buy some of their rights, but not all of them and not all of the time. Participating in government protection mechanisms will secure their rights when their money can’t.
Another problem caused by individuals buying their rights is that we may see crowding out of moral motivation. If other individuals, companies or governments can get money for securing rights, they’ll stop securing rights for moral reasons. And finally, the concept of rights will be corrupted. Rights are not something which should have to be bought. They are something people have a moral duty to give. Allowing rights to be bought and sold corrupts the value and meaning of rights.
More posts in this series are here.