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What Money Can’t Buy by Michael J. Sandel

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

by Michael J. Sandel.
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 245 pp.

Michael J. Sandel is the Ann T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. He is author or editor of seven other books including Justice. He frequently appears on PBS and BBC television.

It used to be that standing in line — or in a queue depending on what part of the world you are in — was a sign of a civilized society. Most people would have found it somehow inappropriate to pay to move to the front rather than “wait your turn.” No longer. In fact, queue jumping has become institutionalized. By paying an extra $10 you can move to the front of the boarding line on Southwest Airlines. You can buy a pass on most airlines to move to the front of the security line at the airport. You apparently wait your turn only if you don’t have the means to move up.

A small thing, you might say. But Sandel uses this as one of many, many examples, showing how economics have invaded many areas that once were reserved for common courtesy, friendship, and daily life. He asks,

Can all human action be understood in the image of a market? … To a remarkable degree, the last few decades have witnessed the remaking of social relations in the image of market relations. One measure of this transformation is the growing use of monetary incentives to solve social problems (p. 31).

And he concludes,

The more markets extend their reach into noneconomic spheres of life, the more entangled they become with moral questions …. So when market reasoning travels beyond the domain of material goods, it must ‘traffic in morality,’ unless it wants blindly to maximize social utility without regard for the moral worth of the preferences it satisfies (pp. 88, 89).

Much of the book is taken up with a diversity of illustrations around the thesis. Parents pay kids to read, or get good grades. Immigrants pay for priority to enter the country. Governments pay cities to store nuclear waste. Advertisers pay to put their name in and on stadiums around the country. There is even a secondary market on life insurance, where people pay for the opportunity to cash in on someone else’s death (and hope it happens sooner?).

Sandel does an admirable job of making and illustrating his case that markets have moved rather dramatically into areas of life that were not previously considered their sphere. He reminds us that we should question the practices that have become routine and may now seem “normal.” I was expecting a concluding chapter laying out his prescription for changing the current trend. Rather, at the end of the chapter on sports stadiums, he closed with a few questions:

Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? (p. 203)

He offers no suggestions or ideas for stemming the tide, but simply raises the questions. Perhaps that is the first step that is needed, and he does this well. But it seemed like he simply ran out of steam, not knowing where to go next.

I recommend this book to start a conversation, or even a movement. A good read.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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