Issue #26, Fall 2012

The Root of All…

Michael Sandel’s salvos against the conventional wisdom of what markets should—and should not—do.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets By Michael J. Sandel • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2012 • 256 pages • $27

I don’t care too much for money/For money can’t buy me love,” goes the classic Beatles lyric. Michael Sandel adds more items to the list of things that money can’t buy, conspicuously including friendship, a Nobel Prize, and baseball’s Most Valuable Player award—to which might be added self-respect, the satisfaction of work well done, the time and circumstance of one’s birth, and a parent’s pride in the good character of a child.

But the burden of this provocative book is to highlight the astonishing number of things “that money can buy but arguably shouldn’t”—such as privileged access to congressional hearings, insurance policies on the lives of strangers, prison-cell upgrades, sports-stadium “skyboxes,” immigrant visas, “concierge” medical care, human organs, and even children. Had he seen it, Sandel might well have added to his already copious inventory of examples a recent full-page advertisement in Stanford University’s student newspaper. “Genius Egg Donor Wanted,” it proclaimed, and promised “excellent compensation” for “a high-achiever egg donor” with a “near-perfect SAT score, several awards in high school and University.” Yikes.

Sandel’s legendary course on justice has enthralled and enlightened thousands of Harvard students over the last three decades. He is a moral and political philosopher with a keen sense of both history and of contemporary culture and a commitment to the common good, attributes that inform and enliven his earlier works like 1982’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice and 1996’s Democracy’s Discontent, and lend urgent bite to his discussion of what money should and should not buy. As both teacher and writer he has a rare knack for enveloping apparently mundane matters in a mantle of moral significance, and for vivifying high moral principles with quotidian examples. Those pedagogical and authorial techniques are abundantly on display in What Money Can’t Buy. It’s an engaging, compelling read, consistently unsettling and occasionally unnerving.

In philosophical terms, Sandel has always been more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice criticized John Rawls’s classic work, A Theory of Justice, for its Platonically formalistic contraption of the “veil of ignorance” from behind which hypothetically objective humans would contrive the values and norms that would constitute a hypothetically ideal society, its governing principles all perfectly attuned to maximize liberty and justice for all. No such disinterested humans have ever existed, Sandel argued, and never will—nor will any such ideal community.

The task of philosophy, according to Sandel, is not to dream of ideal worlds, but to engage deeply and thoughtfully with the one we have. Echoing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Sandel urges us to embrace the messy empirical stuff of reality and think not merely about how we should live, but about how we can live morally responsible lives within the limits of our characters and circumstances. In the tradition of Immanuel Kant’s famous dictum that “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Sandel has long been the foe of unanchored idealists, universalizers, and absolutists. What’s called for, in his view, are continuous reflection about our ever-changing situations and constant calibration of our ethical standards to render morally defensible the facts of life as we confront them—and the gumption to change those facts when they violate our moral principles. The seductive comfort of simple nostrums is anathema; only relentlessly strenuous moral thinking can yield individual liberty and satisfaction as well as social justice and equilibrium. Above all, Sandel insists that we must do such thinking together, engage one another honestly and openly in substantive moral argument about the kind of society we want. He believes that it takes a village not just to raise a child but to define the conditions of our collective life.

In What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel takes on the fetish with markets that has become the grand delusory nostrum of our time, and one that threatens the very integrity of our social fabric. He grounds his argument in a reading of some notable value shifts that have overtaken the Anglo-American world since the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as he sees it, inaugurated an era of “market triumphalism.” Thatcher, Reagan, and their acolytes—abetted by the imperial ambitions of professional economists—managed to convince majorities of their countrymen that “markets, not government, held the key to prosperity and freedom.” From that anti-Reagan and anti-Thatcher platform Sandel launches some mighty salvos against the regnant conventional wisdom about what markets can and cannot—and should and should not—do.

What Money Can’t Buy can be read in part as a systematic dismantling of the claim that economics is the unique key to enlightened public policy and the uncrowned queen of the social sciences. Sandel largely passes over the usual suspects like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He even freely concedes the appropriateness of their thinking in certain defined realms. What he objects to most vigorously is exemplified in the work of the University of Chicago’s Gary Becker, who won the Nobel Prize for extending economistic techniques to novel realms like racial discrimination, crime, and family life. That kind of thinking Sandel finds empirically suspect and morally questionable. “The most fateful change that unfolded during the last three decades was not an increase in greed,” he writes. “It was the expansion of markets, and market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” He continues: “The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”

The transformation effected by the substitution of bloodless market mechanisms where adaptively evolved social norms once prevailed, Sandel concludes, has been seismic in scale and impact. It means that “we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” Economic models and the calculating logic of quid-pro-quo transactions have metastasized from the commercial and financial realms into more and more dimensions—and less and less appropriate dimensions—of our existence. We have put a price on things once considered priceless—including human body parts and access to the public square.

To that way of life—where nearly everything is up for sale—Sandel addresses two questions. The first is about fairness (or, as he sometimes puts it, inequality). The second is about what he calls “corruption.”

Corruption occurs when “marketizing” something dissolves the value of the item in question: Affection and self-esteem are obvious and virtually self-evident examples. Yet as he extends the range of cases where “commodification” allegedly corrupts the nature of the item in question—the sale of big-game hunting licenses, for example—Sandel’s argument frequently slides from ethical onto aesthetic ground, a much less stable platform for the indictment he wants to sustain. Too often he resorts to labeling a transaction as “distasteful,” surely a weaker condemnation than “unfair.” Not all readers will find the commercial sale of the names of sports stadiums or blood or even a woman’s ova as upsetting as Sandel does. As the ancient wisdom has it, de gustibus non est disputandum—there’s no arguing with taste.

But the boundary between the realms of aesthetics and equity is ill defined. And when Sandel probes matters of equality and fairness, his treatment is robust and challenging. “We need to ask,” he says summarily, “whether there are some things money should not buy.” His argument cuts to the core of the very theory of markets: as sites where buyers and sellers choose from among their virtually limitless needs and desires and make transactions that efficiently allocate their resources and maximize their well-being. Fundamental to the concept of markets—especially when described, as they often are, as “free markets”—is that their proper functioning expands the range of choice and thus optimizes individual and collective satisfaction alike.

Sandel is not the first commentator to note the deficiencies of that theory. Anatole France famously pointed out the asymmetry of the prince’s and the pauper’s supposedly equal right to choose to sleep under a bridge. Isaiah Berlin said that guaranteeing free-market rights “to men who are half-naked, illiterate, underfed, and diseased is to mock their condition…. What is freedom to those who cannot make use of it? Without adequate conditions for the use of freedom, what is the value of freedom?” Franklin Roosevelt perhaps put the matter most succinctly when he said, “Necessitous men are not free men.”

Sandel’s version of this critique is to draw a telling distinction between willingness to pay and ability to pay. Though in theory the “freedom” to choose between private and public schools, or premium and routine health care, or NetJets and JetBlue, or skyboxes or bleacher seats, is equally available to all, the stubborn fact is that many—say, rather, most—potential market players have less than the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of purchasing the superior option. And increasing inequalities of income and wealth further exacerbate the problem.

Disparities in market capacities might be irksome to infrequent flyers or impecunious Red Sox fans, but are hugely more troubling, even downright obscene, when it comes to the kinds of things that are deemed essential to full membership and functionality in modern society. The British sociologist T.H. Marshall once described them as including “the whole range from the right to a modicum of economic welfare and security to the right to share to the full in the social heritage and to live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society. The institutions most closely connected with it are the educational system and the social services.” If we truly believe that all men are created equal and that only equal citizens can properly compose a democracy, disparate access to those types of goods should be of imperative civic concern.

Here Sandel’s argument recalls John Kenneth Galbraith’s influential 1958 book, The Affluent Society, with its notorious accusation that American society presented the sorry spectacle of “private opulence and public squalor.” Sandel takes the argument a giant step further. Galbraith lamented the impoverishment of the public square. Sandel worries about its abandonment—or, more precisely, its desertion by the more fortunate and capable among us. Because sufficient numbers of Americans can now buy alternative versions of what were once regarded as public goods, they are fleeing the public domain altogether—and perhaps fatally dissolving the integument that binds us together as a people.

Sandel touches but regrettably does not dwell on a particularly worrisome case where market values have displaced venerable social norms and practices, with perilously corrosive implications for the health of the body politic: the advent of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF). It came into being in 1973 and has now fought wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It would be too much to say that the AVF constitutes a mercenary force. Many people volunteer for military service out of patriotism and a sense of duty. But at the end of the day civil society is, in effect, paying some of its least advantaged members to do some of its hardest and bloodiest work, while the vast majority of citizens go about their lives well out of harm’s way.

Sandel tends to see this issue less through the fairness/equality lens than as something that “corrupts[s] the meaning of citizenship.” But while the AVF might ultimately degrade the meaning of citizenship, more immediately and urgently it presents a structural problem with sobering policy implications. The AVF, its ranks unrepresentative of the public in whose name it fights, increasingly conscious of its own distinctive identity, and self-segregated from the larger society, widens the gap between the civil and military sectors and facilitates citizen indifference to the necessity and moral justifiability of the missions the military is asked to perform. That situation effectively creates a moral hazard for our leaders to use the military with minimal fear of popular cognizance or political reprisal.

What Money Can’t Buy is the work of a truly public philosopher. In the best Aristotelian tradition, Sandel focuses on the often unexamined premises that underlie our thought and action. He summons us to shed illusions about our shared condition, and repudiate shibboleths, however alluring. He bids us to think carefully and constantly about how to define our conceptions of the good life and a just society. And he rightly draws attention to some of the most morally disturbing and politically worrisome problems besetting our country.

Charles Murray’s recent Coming Apart, though written from a wholly different philosophical and ideological perspective, offers much suggestive evidence that confirms Sandel’s concern. Murray vividly evokes the lifestyle of a newly emergent elite, cocooned in gated communities, educated largely in private schools, shopping at Whole Foods, consorting only with like-minded and like-monied others, and smugly insulated from many of the travails that afflict most Americans.

In fundamental ways, a modicum of equality is the predicate of fairness. When the most fortunate among us can afford to buy their way onto heights of the political process foreclosed to the less affluent, when they can buy their way out of historically common institutions like the public school, when they can hire security guards to replace the local cops, pay for medical care unavailable to their neighbors, and leave the least advantaged of their fellow citizens to shoulder the burden of defending the national interest, then it’s time to rethink the very concept of common citizenship.

Though Sandel remains too gentle a philosopher to do it, someone needs to begin ringing the equivalent of the “fire bell in the night” that filled Thomas Jefferson “with terror” when he confronted the implications of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The formal separation of free from slave territory sounded “the knell of the Union,” said Jefferson, and 40 years later the eruption of civil war proved him right. As in Jefferson’s time, we are increasingly becoming two nations, divisible this time not along lines of section and race but by seams of class, wealth, and privilege. We may not be headed for a shooting civil war, but as Sandel rightly concludes, “democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life.”

Issue #26, Fall 2012
 

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