What Are the Limits of Markets

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who is interested in in the shape and direction of our society should read this book. In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides an interesting counter-point to the market fundamentalism that dominates our society today.

In the United States we have been encouraged to let markets solve every problem, but there are limitations to the market. What Sandel asks is whether or not puttting something up for sale devalues it. Using examples including human blood, time, and civic involvement, he answers that selling something can cheapen it.

This can be a difficult argument to make, because we all value things like education and community involvement differently. Still, Sandel gives examples of how valuing things with money can actually lead to counter-intuitive results.

I think the underlying thought is that if you pay someone, providing an ancillary or outside incentive for what should be done because of its intrinsic good, then that person could be induced to do the opporite if a sufficient incentive were offered.

We live in an era of market-fundamentalism, which is just as powerful as any other kind of religious fundamentalism. Economists have pushed politicians and popular discourse to think of everything as being valued only in dollars and sense. It leads to economists saying things like “price gouging is good” after disasters.

The book covers issues like naming rights, line jumping, and sky boxes. Is it right to selll advertising on cop cars? Is it right to sell advertising space on our own bodies?

There is one aspect of these kinds of questions that I don’t think Sandel adequately covers. He never talks about where markets fail. Although a market theoretically should cater to the desires of people, it can’t cover needs and desires that aren’t recognized. Markets also do not always allocate things efficiently or fairly or produce the best option. The proliferation of bad pop music is an easy example. Food deserts are another example of a market failure. Sandel talks about the moral failrues of markets, but I think that more discussion about technical failures of markets would have strengthened this book.

Nonetheless, in reading Sandel’s book, there is an underlying assumption that there are things that are good and right. All is not relative in Sandel’s world, and it is not in ours. “In adition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live.”

I think everyone should read this book and think about what kind of society we want to live in, especially as we go through a round of elections where this discussion is being brought into sharp relief. Buy a copy or visit your library and get one. The questions in this book are some of the most important we face, and this is a side of the discussion that is too seldom heard.

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