In the 2013 film Wolf of Wall Street, New York brokers pay to toss people with dwarfism across the room—a scene meant to illustrate the exploitative, ostentatious world of finance. The controversial practice of “dwarf-tossing” is quite real. In places like Detroit, Michigan, and Ottawa, Ontario, you can throw another human being onto a mattress or against a padded wall—for a price.
But should you be able to? That’s just one of the questions posed by Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel in a new video series from the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), What Money Can’t Buy, that explores the moral limitations of markets. Each episode begins with a provocative question—for example, should you be able to profit off someone else’s death?—and follows a group of students as they debate the answer, encouraged by Sandel, who often plays the role of devil’s advocate.
The video series stems from Sandel’s conviction that the world needs to have more public debates about a pressing issue: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society? He’s developed a cult following based on his argument that we need to question a way of life in which almost everything is up for sale. You can buy a prison cell upgrade for $100; access the carpool lane as a single driver for $8; use the services of an Indian surrogate mother for $6,250; or immigrate to the US for $500,000.
Economics, Sandel argues, is taught as a value-neutral science of human behavior and choice. But our approach to commerce has a major impact on human lives. Sandel says that we need to start thinking about capitalism as citizens, not consumers.
To that end, he asked a room full of academics and students at the launch event for the series to consider the dwarf-tossing question. Put to a vote, the room appeared split 50/50 on whether the practice should be illegal. ”As long as both parties are consenting, I don’t see why not,” one man said.
Another audience member shot back, “Can you even consent to that?” She argued that legalizing dwarf-tossing supported the harm of one human for the pleasure of another—a practice akin to slavery. Someone else rolled their eyes and whispered, “How do you know the dwarf is not into that?”
The conflict in the room reflected the difficulty of answering the question of what constitutes harm, and how to determine consent. And the debate threw into light the matter of whose interests should markets serve—consumers, sellers, or the ethical code of a larger society?
For his own part, Sandel is far more interested in kindling debates than settling them. When I asked him if he thought we should decriminalize sex work, the better to regulate the industry and protect workers, he declined to weigh in. “Yes, all good questions worth thinking about.” And with that, class was dismissed.