What Money Can’t Buy

The Moral Limits of Markets

by Michael J Sandel

‘Betting on when celebrities will die is a recreational activity.’

sandel markets

I have been a fan of Michael Sandel for several years now, ever since I watched his Harvard lectures entitled Justice. Described variously as ‘a great educator’ and ‘the most popular professor in the world’, Sandel has brought political and moral philosophy to the attention of (probably) millions who would never have thought of opening a book on the subject.

In What Money Can’t Buy, he dissects today’s market society using fascinating examples of how things are and (perhaps) ought not to be. Some of the examples are amusing, as with the idea of renting out one’s forehead as advertising space. But even then they have a point to make. Others, such as paying to shoot and kill endangered species, are simply nauseating.

Today, it seems nearly everything can be had for a price. Many commodities, formerly thought to be outside the reach of Economics, have now come within its scope. Life, death, children, honours, blood – all can be bought, if you have enough money. Economists, Professor Sandel tells us, advance two arguments in support of the market approach to society, one libertarian, the other utilitarian. First, the market gives freedom to buyer and seller alike and second, a trade benefits both thus the overall utility increases.

‘Fines register moral disapproval, whereas fees are simply prices that apply no moral judgement.’

What Money Can’t Buy questions this approach.  The chapter entitled Jumping the Queue looks at priority lanes at airports and on roads. It discusses doctor appointments and debates in (US) Congress. In Incentives, Sandel examines schemes to benefit health, safety and education. Is it OK, he asks, to pay drug-addicted mothers to undergo sterilisation, smokers to give up tobacco, to pay kids to read books or to allow motorists to pay to exceed the speed limit? In answering these questions, he demonstrates how easily the line between fines and fees can become blurred.

‘A market economy is a [tool] for organising productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour.’

The book offers two main challenges to the market’s erosion of the moral life. One is the coercion or inequality argument. The market is not a level playing field but one where the rich play the poor, the healthy play the sick and so on. Then there is the corruption argument. Making a commodity subject to the rules of buying and selling changes the nature of that commodity, cheapens it or somehow makes it less worthy.

‘The lines separating insurance, investment and gambling have all but vanished …. today markets in life and death have outrun the social purposes and moral norms that once constrained them.’

Nowhere is this more evident than in the chapter entitled Markets in Life and Death. Insurance, once a noble idea to protect against inadversity, is now a means by which companies and institutions can make a lot of money by gambling on possible future scenarios. En route, I learned a few terms I had never heard of before: viaticals; janitors insurance; death pools; the terrorism futures market.

This book has so much more to offer. The chapter on Naming Rights talks a lot about baseball, which made me switch off for a while; I don’t understand the sport! However, it covers other interesting topics like skyboxing. A few decades ago, the author points out, sporting occasions were an opportunity for people from different walks of life, different classes, occupations, religions etc to mix. Is society all the poorer, he asks, because sport has become more commercial – for spectator and participant alike?

Two commodities, I note, are not presently for sale. Friendship and Nobel Prizes. Why? To quote from this thought-provoking work, ‘the market exchange would dissolve the good that gives [the commodity] its value.’

The subject matter of What Money Can’t Buy is also, like the Justice programme, available on Youtube. Just search for Michael Sandel and you will find lectures, seminars and discussions on most of the topics contained in the book (published in 2012). If you haven’t already watched him at work, I recommend them to you.


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