Editorial: Reminder — money isn’t everything

Last Saturday’s Food Pantry fundraiser was, by all accounts, a dazzling success. But what made it a success? Was the amount of money raised the only measure of success? And could even more money have been raised by tapping into participants’ financial self-interest?

Certainly, that’s the way we tend to measure all things nowadays: money and free markets that drive the flow of dollars.

But wasn’t the Food Pantry fundraiser also a success in other ways?  Aren’t the not-so-easily quantifiable, positive emotions associated with the event of some value, too? And what of the community-spirited, civic gathering’s mission to help other, less fortunate people in the county?  What’s the market value of that?

These questions are prompted by a new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” One of the many fascinating case studies cited by the author, Michael J. Sandel, involves high school students soliciting door-to-door donations for worthy causes like cancer research and aid to disabled children.

The students were divided into three groups: (1) those who listened to a brief motivational speech about the worthiness of the cause; (2) those who received the same speech but also were offered a 1 percent commission on what they collected; (3) those who would receive a 10 percent commission.

Which group raised the most money?  If you believe that the profit motive drives all human action, the answer must be the students who got the highest financial reward. But, in fact, the unpaid volunteers collected the most!

The only possible explanation lies in the fact that to pay someone to do a good deed, it by definition is no longer a good deed and so becomes less interesting. Introducing personal financial rewards, in the words of the author, “crowds out” civic commitment as motivation. And replacing moral persuasion with money leads ultimately to corruption.

The civic commitment behind Rappahannock’s Food Pantry, we’re happy to report, hasn’t yet been crowded out.

Walter Nicklin