Feature

Book of the week: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

Sandel challenges the idea that society functions best when decisions are left to markets that are free of moral concerns.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27)

Is there anything left that can’t be bought or sold? asked Martin Sandbu in the Financial Times. Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher and the best-selling author of 2009’s Justice, wants us to notice how infrequently society now draws that line. For a price, a person can now buy the right to shoot endangered rhinos, to upgrade a prison cell, or to drive solo in the carpool lane. Schools now pay children to read books, and corporations pay to pollute. “Coming from a lesser thinker,” such a list “would sound like an old man’s complaints that things are not what they used to be.” But “Sandel has a genius for showing why such changes are deeply important.” He’ll convince you that the creep of market thinking has eroded our sense of what “the good life” might be.

If you’re already nodding your head, you might wish that Sandel had written “a more sweeping, angrier book,” said John Lanchester in The Guardian (U.K.). But in his calm way, the Harvard professor has mounted “an all-out assault” on the popular idea that society functions best when decisions are left to markets and those markets are allowed to operate free of moral concerns. Sandel shows that the moral value of the goods and services we exchange is often degraded when everything is allowed to have a price. Life insurance, for instance, was once simply a means of mitigating a family’s suffering in the event of an early death, but Walmart has used third-party life insurance to collect a payoff of its own whenever one of its low-wage employees dies young. Shouldn’t we be better at recognizing that some values need to be protected from the influence of markets?

“Sandel isn’t a socialist,” said Jonathan V. Last in The Wall Street Journal. Nor is he “a ninny knitting his fingers” over the fact that an affluent family can buy a pass to avoid waiting in line at a roller coaster. He recognizes that markets have been broadly beneficial to humankind and doesn’t expect to turn back the clock to some purely equitable society. But proponents of “market morality” will now have to answer the challenges he’s put to their worldview. Sure, every problem society faces has an incentive-based solution and “every tension can be resolved by seeking the maximally efficient outcome.” Alas, that’s “a depressingly reductive view of the human experience.”

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