The Root of All…
Michael Sandel’s salvos against the conventional wisdom of what markets should—and should not—do.
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.”
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