Book Review – “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”

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What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Michael J. Sandel)

My grade (1 to 5): 4 – unsettling but insightful critique of pervasive market-based thinking in contemporary society full of different examples illustrating that, especially in the U.S., increasingly everything seems to be up for sale – and how we should think about this if we object to certain commercializing practices of things we consider too sacred or important to be treated in this way.

Key Ideas:

  • In what “Justice” author Michael Sandel calls “market triumphalism“, we find ourselves in a world where increasingly many problems are being solved by the application of a price and buyers willing to pay it. Whether we pay for convenience, trying to motivate individuals to behave a certain way, gamble on the life or death of celebrities, or try to support public goods like schools and the police, Sandel invites us to reflect on whether the practice of putting up virtually anything (and anyone) up for sale is desirable from a moral perspective.
  • Examples range from the seemingly harmless (e.g., paying to cut the line at airports, themeparks, congressional hearings, concerts, Shakespeare festivals, or naming rights on baseball stadiums) to the controversial (e.g., paying drug-addicted women to be sterilized, kids for good grades, for police cars to be rolling advertising bill boards, for the right to immigrate, for the right to pollute with carbon offsets, or for the right to kill endangered rhinos), to the outright macabre (e.g., companies secretly buying life insurance on employees to cash in upon their deaths, online sites to reward the right bet on the death of famous people).
  • For each example, the author explains that all arguments boil down to two fundamental objections every time that we feel disturbed by instances where the market/economic approach seems to inappropriately encroach on civic life. The first is an effect on reducing equality in society. The second is about corruption or degradation of the good in question by the practice of putting it up for sale. Throughout each example, Sandel applies this framework and offers his opinion whether the market approach is defensible or not based on either criteria.

Why this matters:

  • First of all, readers of this book will be reminded of a central (and closing) theme of Sandel’s best-seller “Justice – What’s the Right Thing to Do“: that we cannot answer the most difficult moral questions in our lives without having our own view on what constitutes “the good life” for us and the societies we live in. In this case, the key implication from a critique of the market-based way of thinking is that we cannot decide if a certain practice should or should not be allowed without deliberating about the basic purpose of the good, even, or institution in question. For example, if we object to the practice of offering drug-addicted mothers money in order to be permanently sterilized (to prevent the birth of children inheriting diseases), we have to eventually articulate the roots of our unease, e.g., that women’s bodily reproductive rights should be untouchable.
  • What distinguishes this book is its simplicity in breaking down all such “first principle” arguments to two factors that underline all objections to various practices of “putting a price tag” on issue XYZ.
  • First, Sandel notes that one source of contention to market practices is about inequality. For instance, in the case of “Concierge Doctors”, it is possible for some people to pay a large sum of money to receive direct access to a doctor’s private cell phone number. This allows them to by-pass the usual system of waiting rooms and receive priority treatment ahead of others, who presumably cannot afford or choose not to pay the fee. The same goes for the idea of ticket scalpers at a free “Shakespeare In the Park” festival who “reserve” seats and sell them to busy professionals not willing to stand in line. In the latter case, every seat occupied by someone who paid for it cannot be occupied by someone who could not afford the payment, and who had originally signed up for a free event, provided they showed up early enough to stake their seat. Whoops.
  • In either example, the argument on inequality states that we may object to such a practices based on the idea that the pricing of such services creates increasingly a “pay for quality” society where essential services like healthcare or the more leisurely performing arts – which some believe “should” be available to all citizens – are increasingly dependent on the amount of money at one’s disposal. More simply – people with money get good stuff that should be free. People with less simply don’t. The author seems to attack the “Tough luck” defense of pro-market people through this argument.
  • The second objection is about corruption. What the author means by this is the idea that attaching a price on a good does not only determine its availability or answer questions of efficient allocation of supply and demand. In many cases, an unintended consequence overlooked is that the pricing of goods transforms their meaning in a way that is not appropriate to them. In other words, many of our objections to commercialization are based on our sense that putting the good in question up for sale degrades and dishonors it.
  • In an obvious example, we may find the practice of “death pool” websites that host polls on “which celebrity will die first, second, third, etc.” distasteful because we may believe that the practice of gambling on someone’s life-span degrades his or her humanity to a game. In a less stark example, the organizers of the Shakespeare festival object to the practice of ticket scalping because it degrades the original purpose of this event as an open and free opportunity for citizens from all walks of life to gather and enjoy the arts together. Whether or not the purchase and sale of scalped tickets is done voluntarily is no longer the question, rather than the fact that its very practice dishonors the organizers’ intentions. Another example of this are sky boxes hovering above the heads of common people at ball games that were originally intended to be gathering places for people regardless of social status. Lastly, the practice of schools offering money to students for good grades could be criticized in this way by calling out that the payment offer alters or “corrupts” one important objective of schools – to foster a love for learning in its own sake, not for results like grades.
  • What fascinates me in these discussions, as readers of this blog won’t be surprised to hear, is that we are once again led to a place where we cannot have any substantive argument about the appropriateness of a practice without stating and debating our views on what the essential purpose of something is. That, in return, leads us to the need to earnestly discuss what we consider “the good life”, which matches our inner convictions of right and wrong with the realities of our everyday lives as citizens of various communities, states and nations.
  • As a big believer in civic responsibility, I support the author’s thesis that we have to re-learn how to deliberate by defining and articulating our values, instead of hiding between the all-too simple, conventional economics’ assertion that “everything is fine as long as market exchanges are made voluntarily, i.e., with full consent by both sides of a transaction”.
  • At the end of “Justice“, Michael Sandel very carefully – almost timidly – attempted to introduce his own opinion about what is missing in contemporary society. This book now seems to be his way of expanding on that idea by virtue of concrete examples from a very broad canvas of circumstances. On the one hand, all of us may find different practices more or less objectionable. On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter for us to find consensus on each issue. What matters is that we understand the moral core of our objections, and Sandel’s roadmap here allows us to recognize the “inequality” and “corruption” arguments as simple but helpful ways of organizing our thinking. In practice, this also helps us understand how courts, town councils, sports associations and other governing bodies deliberate on whether or not certain commercial practices should or should not be allowed. It strikes me as ironic that sometimes the governing bodies and people who run them themselves may not be fully aware on what bases they make their decisions.
  • Some readers may miss a stronger more affirmative message in this book purporting to be a critique of contemporary market-centric society (at least American society). However, I believe the author achieves more in his way of simply stating facts and stories about cases he heard about and letting the readers decide if in actuality something appears missing/broken in a society where we do not ask twice to sell anything to anyone for the right price. It encourages me that in most stories, enough local opposition helped shutting down proposals I would call quite preposterous (e.g., the idea of a market in “terrorism futures”). That is a sign that some people ARE still paying attention to their moral compass. For those people, perhaps it would be fair to say that after a while, the main lesson starts sounding a little repetitive since the structure is simply two lessons +20 something different illustrations of those lessons.
  • Ultimately, this book then (1) helps these thinking people to better identify and articulate the moral bases of their objections and (2) more importantly, reminds the rest of us who have been asleep at the wheel of consumerism to wake up and consider such critical thinking/debate about the good life as a fundamental duties of citizenship.
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