Book Review: What Money Can't Buy - The Moral Limits of Markets

March 01, 2015

Book Review: What Money Can't Buy - The Moral Limits of Markets

Did you know that there is a US-based foundation that pays drug addicted men and women $300 to be sterilised? Did you know that in the year 2000 a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space? Did you know that in some American schools they pay children as young as seven $2 for each book they read? Did you know that non-violent offenders in some US prisons could pay for a cell upgrade ($82/night)?

These days, money can buy just about anything. This is the drift from having a market economy to being a market society, and it has happened under our noses, although we have been largely complacent about its rise to power. Now though, we are faced with a problem: market values are crowding out non-market values, and changing the ways in which we value certain goods. In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel suggests that in light of this shift it is our responsibility to now ‘decide what values should govern the various domains of social and civic life’ (p9). This is no small task. Nevertheless, according to Sandel, it is only through reasoned public debate that we will determine the right way to value the social goods we prize. Sandel is not naïve about the nature of such a conversation. Inevitably, this debate stretches into moral terrain, and requires a certain level of judgement concerning the actions and behaviours of others. Our collective fear of passing judgement on others has been a key component in the rise of a market society, for it is the market that advocates freedom of choice above all other concerns. If we are to have any hope of reclaiming a social and civic life not entirely dictated by market economics we must coax people to engage in conversations about ethics and the nature of the good life. It is only by doing this that it will be possible to properly value social goods.

Each chapter in this book contains an arresting series of examples showing how market transactions have moved into spheres of life where they were previously unknown. At each page turn I found myself gasping and thinking, ‘I didn’t know that; how didn’t I know that?’ At every point, he shows how the invasion of market economics provokes an objection on the grounds of fairness or corruption, or oftentimes both.

The fairness objection ‘points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity’ (p111). In practice, this objection most commonly surfaces when it appears that some element of coercion may have entered the transaction. Although advocates of a market society may insist that its virtue lies in the freedom of choice it offers to all citizens, the fairness objection points out that on the basis of inequality, some choices are not, nor cannot be, truly free. For example, most countries in the world prohibit a trade in human organs. The fairness objection insists that markets in human organs would prey upon the poor, thus making their decision to sell their organ not truly voluntary. Or consider children. Would it be appropriate to create a market in babies up for adoption? The fairness objection insists that to do so would price poorer parents out of the market. In theory, this issue can be resolved by establishing fair bargaining conditions.

Not so with corruption. The corruption objection ‘points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices’ (p111). This objection moves beyond the need for fair market conditions and ‘focuses on the character of the goods themselves and the norms that should govern them’ (p113). The economist is now being asked to bridge the chasm between economics and ethics and formulate a new world order based purely on economic theory. Where this has happened, we see this new beast known as a market society. Let’s revisit children. To create a market in babies up for adoption is not only an issue of fairness, it is also an issue of corruption. To put a price tag on a child is to corrupt the ideal of unconditional parental love, and inevitable price differences end up determining value based on race, sex, intellectual promise, and physical abilities or disabilities (p111). This is not the proper value of a child. Sandel claims that it is essential to reintroduce the moral and spiritual element into the public discourse about the character and norms of the good life, and by so doing we may be able to reduce the stranglehold that market triumphalism currently enjoys.

For those not versed in economics (that’s me!), Sandel reveals two key tenets of market faith: first, commercialising an activity doesn’t change it; and second, ethical behaviour is a commodity that needs to be economised (p125-26). Given all the examples in the book, it is not hard to see how the first tenet is simply naïve; a stubborn refusal to admit what is so obviously true. It was the second tenet that shocked me. The principle goes like this: ‘we should not rely too heavily on altruism, generosity, solidarity, or civic duty, because these moral sentiments are scarce resources that are depleted with use’ (p126). Lawrence Summers—an economist—defended this idea by claiming that the economist helps preserve the finite quantity of altruism by ‘designing a system in which people’s wants will be satisfied by individuals being selfish, and saving that altruism for our families, our friends, and the many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve’.[1] According to this view, economics and market thinking has effectively supplanted God as the Saviour of the world.

This book is shocking and wonderful. Although almost all of the examples Sandel gives are American, it is still a powerful exposé of the way that the market has stretched into every sphere of life. It is important reading for anyone who lives in the world.

[1] Lawrence H. Summers, ‘Economics and Moral Questions’, Morning Prayers, Memorial Church, September 15, 2003

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