Where’s the money?
“Where’s the money?” I squealed. It was my first day on the job. But this time I was doing for free work that I had been paid for before. I was working as a volunteer. I was worrying if I could really afford to do this. I thought of the purchasing power that this day of volunteering had robbed me of; the bills that need paying; that holiday I’ve been promising myself but haven’t been able to afford. The phone started ringing. It wouldn’t stop for the next eight hours. The charity I was volunteering for – Médecins Sans Frontières – had been in the news a lot the day before. I groaned under the burden of my overdraft.
As my morning blues abandoned me my concerns evaporated. I had been worried my work would perhaps be sloppy as I wasn’t getting paid. Instead there was a purity about doing a job for its own sake. I had a feeling of generosity that was certainly satisfying. Most of all I was happy to be working together with dedicated people on a good cause. It occurred to me that my time was not for sale. It was being offered in a different kind of exchange.
This reminded me of a story I had read about of Israeli day-care centre. The centre was having problems with parents turning up late to pick up their children. In response they decided to introduce a fine. The bizarre result was that late pick-ups increased. The fine had turned into a fee. The moral desire to do the right thing and the risk of disapproval by other parents and staff worked as a greater incentive to turn up on time than a few Shekels. But what’s really curious about this story (it’s in Michael Sandel’s book – What Money Can’t Buy) is what happens next: The day-care centre tried to go back to the old system. But parents kept turning up late in the same numbers as when they had been fined. Once courtesy and morality had been marketized through the fine – had been put on sale – it was impossible to go back to the old values. This story really resonates. As Sandel puts it “do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?” What’s disturbing about the story is that once we have replaced moral and civic duties with financial ones – once we use money as the final arbiter – it seems impossible to change back.
But during my day of volunteering it did change back. My motivation switched from being based mainly on cash to one based on an ethos of working together. Volunteering worked as an antidote to marketization. Giving your time for free is such a reversal of market values it undermines them. It encourages us to quietly reconnect with moral and civic acts and to invest in them again. This is achieved through a shared experience rather than any ear bashing or soaring rhetoric. Reclaiming this ground on a personal and cultural scale – ground that has become unfashionable to occupy in the last thirty years – is provocative and radical. It is this cultural shift and change in consensus that has the potential, arguably more so than formal regulations, to make our markets more humane and equitable again.