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

Michael J. Sandel

256 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

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Harvard University 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 off ered online and on television and seen by millions.

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 he has sounded an alarm about the quest for perfection in biomedical research and genetic engineering.

Sandel’s new book takes up the undeniably important question: What 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: 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 alumnus William Falik. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!

Examples abound in Sandel’s book, making 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 nonmarket behavior.

Sandel’s first point is really an argument about fairness. 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. The second argument about market norms displacing valuable nonmarket 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, for example, may corrode an intrinsic desire to learn.

A famous example of this 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. Several providers opted to introduce a fine for late pickups. The result was an increase in late pickups, because parents treated the fine as a fee they were willing to pay rather than construing on-time pickup 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 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 nonmarket behavior. Or more important—because markets can promote efficiency and liberty and agency—Sandel off ers no resource to referee whether the benefit from commodifying certain goods is worth the cost to nonmarket norms.

Sandel’s talent is for identifying and asking important questions about the place of markets. But the book does not 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 been transgressed. So although 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 nonmarket norms. Take for instance the simple distinction between goods offered for sale by for-profits vs. nonprofits. 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 guidance about where the limits are. Sandel ignores a growing literature on this topic. Books by philosophers Debra Satz and Elizabeth Anderson, or by economists Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen, 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.