Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sandel's "The Moral Limits of Markets" Takes on Walrus Hunting

My summer reading list included Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.”  Sandel explores a litany of modern examples where, he avows, market values arguably have cast aside nonmarket values.  For instance, he describes a program in Dallas that pays second graders $2 for each book they read, a North Carolina-based outfit that pays women with drug addictions $300 to undergo sterilization procedures, and lobbyists’ practice of paying companies who employ homeless people to stand in line for Congressional hearings.  Several of Sandel’s examples arise in the environmental realm.  One particular interesting section of the book is entitled “Paying to Shoot a Walrus.” 

Sandel describes how the centuries-long practice of hunting the Atlantic walrus in the Arctic region of Canada ultimately decimated the walrus population, prompting Canada to ban walrus hunting in 1928.  The ban included only a small exception for the Inuit, an aboriginal group of subsistence hunters.  In the 1990s, the Inuit convinced the Canadian government to allow it to sell the right to kill some of their walrus quota to big game hunters.  Today, select hunting enthusiasts pay upwards of $7,000 to shoot a walrus, under the guidance and supervision of the Inuit. 

While Sandel cites another writer’s comparison of walrus hunting under Inuit supervision to “a long boat ride to shoot a very large beanbag chair,” one hunter recently described the experience as “a unique, exciting, and rewarding hunt.”  Hunters may seek to land a walrus in the course of endeavoring to kill one of each specimen on hunting clubs’ “lists.”  (For example, the Arctic “Grand Slam” includes the caribou, musk ox, polar bear, and walrus.)  Moreover, through the practice of supervising walrus hunts, the Inuit create jobs, collect fees, and retain the meat, skin, blubber oil, and tusks as they always have done. 

In describing these benefits for non-Inuit hunters and the Inuit alike, Sandel emphasizes that “markets don’t pass judgment on the desires they satisfy.”  Yet he suggests that allowing the Inuit to sell the right to kill walruses may push the limits of markets too far, crowding out morality-based objections.  He notes two over-arching reasons:

 “One is that this bizarre market caters to a perverse desire that should carry no weight in any calculus of social utility.  Whatever one thinks of big-game hunting, this is something else.  The desire to kill a helpless mammal at close range, without any challenge or chase, simply to complete a list, is not worthy of being fulfilled, even if doing so provides extra income for the Inuit.  Second, for the Inuit to sell outsiders the right to kill their allotted walruses corrupts the meaning and purpose of the exemption accorded their community in the first place.  It’s one thing to honor the Inuit way of life and to respect its long-standing reliance on subsistence walrus hunting.  It’s quite another to convert that privilege into a cash concession in killing on the side.”

Regardless of one’s perspective on the merits of markets in protecting the environment (or one’s perspective on walrus hunting or much of anything else), Sandel’s latest work is an interesting, thought-provoking read.

-Tim Mulvaney

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