The Pursuit of Knowledge

Not for Sale

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

By From the June 2010 issue

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 purchased -- namely, 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 sell sexual love, but you can buy and sell its cheapened 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 priced -- the 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 predations; 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. It is to this vestigial religious sentiment that we owe the national parks of America, the lake lands of England, the city of Venice, and the landscape of Provence -- all of which would long ago have been vandalized had it not been for those who protected them as spiritual sites.

There is a problem, however. Without the backing of a shared culture strong enough to unite people against the vandals, our sense of the sacred is a weak and vacillating resource. Our values capitulate in the face of "economic sense." And only the strongest public spirit is proof against profit. The battle between value and price is a permanent feature of the human condition and recognizes no barriers, no territory where it cannot be fought. Even our deepest emotions are invaded by it. Oscar Wilde defined the sentimentalist as the one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing -- in other words, who is disposed to put everything on sale, emotions and values included. In the end intrinsic values can be protected only in a culture that supports them -- a culture in which people are able to ignore "economic sense."

THE CONFLICT BETWEEN VALUE AND PRICE has led to one of the many tensions between Europe and America. American businesses operate at home in an environment where there are no real aesthetic constraints, and in which advertising, logos, and branding are regarded as a legitimate and necessary part of competition. Wherever they set up shop, the first thought of American businesses is to advertise the fact, and to make as big a splash as possible in order to gain a foothold in the market. This is done through catching the eye, and even if you catch the eye by first offending it, that too is a part of business. Branding and logos produce reliable sales, since they erase all differences of place and time.

The result is the well-known American main street, in which loud advertisements, garish shop fronts, and childish logos destroy every architectural façade, and turn what might once have been a dignified public space into a crowd of brash competitors, each the representative of a predator miles away. Few people seem to mind, since, after all, things in America move on, the old main street was only a passing episode in history, and life is in any case lived in the suburbs, where all space is private and nothing stands out as a threat. This means that American towns have not been protected by a public culture of appearance: they have an innate tendency to dissolve into logos, shop fronts, and adverts, to lose their public face and to turn from frail settlements to robust camping sites.

One of the most important environmental movements in Europe has been sparked off by the creep of American business. This is the Slow Food Movement, which began in Rome when McDonald's proposed to install one of its restaurants in the Piazza di Spagna. The thought of the double arches, with their offensive color and childish shapes, polluting one of the great baroque squares of the Holy City was too much for the locals, and they began first to campaign against the plan, then to campaign against McDonald's, and then to campaign against the whole culture to which that business belongs. They successfully protected the Piazza di Spagna from aesthetic pollution and then decided to spread the message elsewhere. Moving with the slowness implied in its name, the Slow Food Movement now has followers across the continent, and local restaurants are beginning to advertise themselves as selling food by the hour rather than the kilogram.

The Slow Food Movement is only one expression of a growing hostility to the American attitude to downtown business. Protecting the urban environment means protecting it as a public space. But competition at the international level requires the privatization of the street, and the replacement of façades that have evolved from local styles and traditions with garish and standardized imports that have no respect for the individual townscape or the indigenous way of life. Hence local conservation societies and planners identify the logo-branded multinational as their most important enemy. In France the radical anarchist José Bové, now a member of the European Parliament, has led a movement to dismantle the fast food franchises that have been dropped from the skies on the ancient cities of Europe. Others, inspired by Naomi Klein's No Logo, are campaigning for a moratorium on logos and branding, with the design of shop fronts governed by local conventions and styles rather than by the aesthetic tastes of hungry children.

The problem is that aesthetic values are losing their public grip. When, after the war, the city of Warsaw was reconstructed from scratch, it was accepted without question that the old town should be rebuilt as it was, and that signs and facades should conform to the Renaissance pattern-book. Under the Communists things did not change, since there were no commercial pressures for change, and the old city remained as a symbol of public spirit and stable order amid the moral devastation. Now, however, the rot has begun to set in, with a Pizza Hut defacing the space beside the royal castle, and the competition ready to move in. The Poles could protect this much-loved environment only by legislation; but the public spirit that existed after the war exists no longer, and the multinationals have ways of making poorly paid politicians behave as they wish.

As long as European public spirit was strong, it took a stand against the branding of the urban environment. Europeans felt at home in their cities, and ennobled by them. As the public spirit has weakened, and the new McCity has risen on once sacred foundations, so has anti-Americanism increased. The old European sense, that sacred things are not for sale, has been defeated, and, while eating their food slowly behind ancient façades, the European elites stare with hostility at their social inferiors crowding into the McDonald's and Subways across the street. The problem, as they know, is that the life across the street is the future, while the place where they linger over dinner is the past.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.