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Looking for the limits of market triumphalism

At the heart of a national tragedy lie a willing seller and a willing buyer.

An AR-15 semi-automatic  rifle, the most popular rifle in America, manufactured by Bushmaster, was sold through the distribution chain to a gun enthusiast, the mother of the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut.

From FCPA practice, compliance professionals know that the fact that a willing seller (such as a corrupt public official) agrees with a willing buyer (the bribe giver) to sell the privileges of his office to the highest bidder does not make a market practice legal, ethical, or in the public interest.

Michael Sandel, the Harvard Professor famous for his televised lecture series on justice, asks a good question as the title of his recent book: What Money Cannot Buy? For example, “we don’t allow parents to sell their children or citizens to sell their votes.” Explaining the rise and fall of “market triumphalism,” he sets the stage for a new debate. What are the moral limits of markets, he asks, calling for society to rethink “when markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong.”

In the chapter “Markets and Corruption,” Sandel writes that corruption is about more than bribes and illicit payments. “To corrupt a good or a social practice is to degrade it.” Corruption violates the principle that some things are sacred; they are not up for sale at any price. We must not set their value by what price the market will bear or we will lose their preciousness.

When it comes to America’s children, we must set their value and debate all that affects them by different measures, if we truly value them at all.


Michael Scher is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog.

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