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