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

Michael J. Sandel

256 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012

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Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel is one of our nation’s preeminent public intellectuals. Author of many notable books, he is a masterful teacher of a legendary class, called “Justice,” also offered online and on television, and seen by millions. In 2010, China Newsweek named him “the most influential foreign figure of the year.”

Sandel’s mode of operation is straightforward: he tackles large and important questions in clear, engaging prose, examining a feature of contemporary life in which ethical boundaries have been transgressed or where an important ethical concern has been leached from debate. In previous work, Sandel has expressed anxiety about a diminishing capacity to talk about moral issues in American politics and civil society, and has sounded an alarm about the quest for perfection in biomedical research and genetic engineering.

Sandel’s new book takes up the large and undeniably important question: What, if any, are the moral limits of the marketplace? What shouldn’t money buy? True to form, he worries that things have gone too far, that we have “drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” His aim is to show the moral cost of what happens when everything is for sale, when any good can be commodified.

Far from an academic treatise, the book consists mainly of short case studies of surprising new commodities and labor forms. The first chapter is about the line jumping market— people who are paid to stand in line at airports, Congressional hearings, or amusement parks, as well as those who work as ticket scalpers and so-called concierge doctors. The second chapter is about encouraging or limiting various behaviors through market incentives, such as tradable pollution permits, cash for good grades, payments for human organs, or a marketplace in accepting refugees. The third chapter examines how markets can crowd out desirable moral norms, such as hiring friends, purchasing wedding toasts, auctioning college admissions, and buying rather than donating blood. The fourth chapter takes up markets in life and death, covering Internet death pools, a terrorism futures market, and death bonds. The final chapter questions the proliferation of naming rights, such as the Falik Men’s Room at Harvard, endowed by and named after alumnus William Falik. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!

Examples abound in Sandel’s book, which makes for a good, even rollicking read. And as the examples accumulate, one begins to appreciate just how deeply markets and market behavior have rooted themselves in virtually all aspects of our lives. The claim that we are a market society, as opposed to having a market economy, seems not far-fetched.

Yet Sandel is not arguing against markets per se. Rather, he proposes that markets should have limits. He identifies two moral concerns. First, when markets exist everywhere, he argues, we need to worry more about inequality. If money can buy more and more, including political influence and better health care and education, then having money matters more and more. Second, making certain goods into commodities can corrupt the very value of these goods; market norms can crowd out valuable non-market behavior.

Sandel’s first point is really an argument about fairness, and it is a familiar concern. If money is the necessary means to obtaining certain goods, or a certain quality of goods, then the poor will be systematically disadvantaged in the marketplace. Should obtaining a life-saving organ transplant depend on the ability to pay a market price for the organ? Should admission to a selective university ride on the wealth of a student’s parents? When goods such as these are commodified, we rightly worry about unfairness.

The second argument about market norms displacing valuable non-market behavior, however, is Sandel’s main preoccupation. For Sandel, markets not only allocate goods, they “express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged.” Paying cash for good grades may corrode an intrinsic desire to learn. Auctioning off college admissions can corrupt the integrity of higher education.

A famous example of this general phenomenon, twice discussed by Sandel, is a study of childcare providers in Israel. The day care centers were having a problem with parents arriving past closing time to pick up their children. Several providers opted to introduce a fine for late pick-ups. The result was an increase in late pick-ups, where parents treated the fine as a fee they were willing to pay rather than construing on-time pick-up as a norm they were expected to uphold. For Sandel, this demonstrates how attaching a price to certain moral or civic goods can diminish or corrupt those very goods.

Like the worry about unfairness, corruption is a reasonable concern. But Sandel never delivers an argument about exactly how to determine whether or when market norms will displace non-market behavior. Or more importantly—since markets can promote efficiency and liberty and agency—Sandel offers no resource to referee whether the benefit from commodifying certain goods is worth the cost to non-market norms.

Sandel’s talent is for identifying and asking important questions about the place of markets. But the book fails—indeed, does not really try—to answer these questions. Even in the many examples Sandel describes, the reader is left unsure whether he believes that some moral limit has actually been transgressed. So while Sandel is expert at assembling worrisome examples and challenging readers to puzzle through their own intuitions and views about markets, he could have accomplished more.

First, Sandel could have conveyed a more sophisticated view about markets. Not all markets and marketplace exchanges are alike, or have the potential to corrupt valuable non-market norms. Take for instance the simple distinction, familiar to any reader of SSIR, between goods offered for sale by for-profit versus nonprofit organizations. Commodification looks different if the marketplace is populated by nonprofit organizations, but this distinction is lost in Sandel’s undifferentiated treatment of markets.

Second, Sandel could have offered a more sophisticated framework for thinking about the limits of markets, a framework capable of delivering more guidance about where the limits are. It would not have been difficult to do so; a growing literature on this topic is inexcusably ignored by Sandel. Books by philosophers Elizabeth Anderson and Debra Satz or by economists Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen, among others, all provide a more sophisticated account of the limits of markets.

Sandel, however, is operating in public intellectual and provocateur mode: to raise important questions for public debate. What Money Can’t Buy is neither original nor deep, but if it stimulates a wider public discussion about the emergence of a market society, it will have succeeded on its own terms.