Morality, markets, and Michael Sandel

In Santa Ana in California prisoners can buy a cell upgrade. In Dallas, Texas, underachieving children are paid to read books. These are, alas, some of the saner and less offensive illustrations Michael Sandel offers.

May 18 th 2012

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by Theos, a U.K. "think tank which believes you can't understand the modern world without understanding religion." Author Nick Spencer is Research Director for Theos. Reprinted with permission.

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 256pp.

In Santa Ana in California prisoners can buy a cell upgrade. In Dallas, Texas, underachieving children are paid to read books. The company hires people to stand in line in order to reserve places for those who wish to lobby Congress. Air New Zealand recently paid punters to shave their heads and sport temporary tattoos advertising the company.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which market exchange has invaded territory previously immune to its forces. They are, alas, some of the saner and less offensive illustrations that Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard and former Reith lecturer, offers in this brilliantly lucid book on morality and markets.

Thus, and by comparison, several economists have suggested charging admission to refugees fleeing persecution, with the impeccable logic that those who want it most would pay (or, rather, borrow and pay) most for it. One candidate for Governor of Nevada argued that drivers should be allowed to pay $25 a day to exceed the state speed limit. The economist Kenneth Boulding once proposed a system of "marketable procreation licences" as a way of dealing with overpopulation. Judge Richard Posner advocated the use of markets to allocate babies put up for adoption. No book I own has so many exclamation marks in its margins.

The philosopher Mary Midgley once wrote an essay on why we should pay attention to the yuk factor, that instinctive feeling that something is wrong. Unreflective as it is, it remains a powerful testimony to the fact that something is wrong, and should not be easily dismissed as 'merely' emotive or irrational.

Sandel would agree but does not rest with simply recognising the yuk factor. What Money Can't Buy is good not simply because it is so accessible and well-grounded, but because it unpacks with enviable clarity, why we feel so uneasy about such transactions.

I say 'we' but Sandel acknowledges that not everyone does feel this way. Indeed, one of the reasons why the book is necessary is because omni-marketisation (an ugly phrase that Sandel does not himself use) is becoming normalised in the West. Forty years ago, queuing rather than paying was the norm, sports fans rubbed shoulder irrespective of wealth, children were not paid to learn, and public vehicles, such as police cars and fire engines, did not sport advertising. Today all that is quite acceptable. As yet, it is still only the lunatic libertarian fringe (again not a phrase Sandel uses: he is unfailingly courteous through the book) that thinks that there is nothing suspect with selling organs or the right of asylum on the open market, but on current trends. . .

Back to the yuk. Sandel shows that there are, in essence, two objections to omni-marketisation. The first is the argument from unfairness. Material inequality is such that people's ability to pay for goods is woefully different. That it means that many supposedly free exchanges are nothing of the kind, with one party being effectively coerced by their poverty. When poor people sell blood or organs or offer surrogate motherhood it is usually because they are poor, rather than because they actively want to flog their bodies. Contrary to received economic wisdom, "willingness to pay for a good does not show who values it most highly."

This is a powerful objection, but a vulnerable one because it admits, in effect, that there is no problem with marketisation, but only with the way it operates. Make exchanges fair, rebalance background material inequality, remove coercion and people can sell their services, goods and bodies however they like. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with omnipresent exchange, just the conditions under which it is conducted.

The second objection is subtler but more powerful. It also better explains the yuk factor. This is the argument from corruption. Some things should not be for sale because to sell them is to degrade them, "to treat [them] according to a lower mode of valuation than is appropriate to [them]."

This is most obviously the case with human beings. We do not buy and sell one another (any more, at least legally) because we recognise that human beings have a worth that is ineradicable and incommensurable, a commitment whose roots lie deep within Judeo-Christianity. A person, we believe, has value that is non-negotiable and absolute, and not amenable to exchange.

But the same logic extends to a whole host of other goods. We can't—or rather, shouldn't—exchange our call to jury service, or sell our votes, or buy good grades, or pay to have friends, or purchase honours because each of these goods is of intrinsic worth.

Technically, of course, they could be sold. There is nothing to stop a corrupt Nobel committee selling prizes. The Wall Street Journal has reported that some top US universities have offered places to "less than stellar" students whose parents had promised substantial donations. And the Tianjin Apology Company in China will say sorry to someone on your behalf, for a fee. But the point is that once exchanged in this way the Nobel prize stops being an honour, entry into the university stops being an achievement, and a paid apology stops being heartfelt. In other words, as Sandel says repeatedly through the book, markets leave their mark, corroding or even destroying non-market values like honour or love.

In spite of how this may sound, Sandel is no anti-market crusader. He is honest enough to admit that he has got things wrong in the past, citing an article he wrote for The New York Times criticising Carbon Trading, the ensuing avalanche of scathing criticism, and the eventual modification of his views. Moreover, he is clear that sometimes marketisation can work. Evidence on the impact of paying children to read is not entirely negative, for example. In some cases it has made a positive difference. Similarly, a legal market in black rhino hunting instituted by the South African Government seems to have halted the decline of this endangered species.

It is to Sandel's credit that he cites these counter examples, but they do not change his basic argument, which is based on not the efficacy of markets but their effect. Charging to shoot rhinos may help protect them but it also corrodes our attitude to them, treating them as a disposable, if expensive, commodity. The question is do we struggle on, hoping for the best (rhinos valued for what they are and protected) while risking the worst (rhinos valued for what they are and poached to extinction), or do we swallow the yuk and plump for the good (rhinos commoditized but also protected). Sandel contends that we must at least be aware of such choices or, as he puts it, that market reasoning is incomplete without moral reasoning.

If What Money Can't Buy has a fault it is that it doesn't go far enough. Acute and articulate as it is in delineating what ails us and why, it doesn't go on to say what we should do about it. One can't help feeling that there is a successor volume on its way but in the meantime here is one suggested way forward.

The root of the problem that Sandel discusses is the anthropological assumptions underlying marketisation, how we conceive human nature. The belief is that people are free and rational maximisers of their well-being who interrelate with one another in the same way that billiard balls do, remaining essentially unaltered by interaction.

Faith in human rationality, freedom and our competence to pursue our own good has come under sustained attack of late from arguments that do not demand attention here. The idea that we are self-contained, independent and autonomous beings persists, however. And it is badly wrong.

Humans are inter-dependent from conception to death. At absolutely no point in our existence are we in any way independent of others. We are formed in the most basic way by our relationships. As psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt has written "human beings are open systems, permeated by other people. . . We are shaped by other people as well as by what we breathe and eat. Both our physiological systems and our mental systems are developed in relationship with other people." This happens most intensely and leaves its biggest mark in infancy, but it is a process that lasts as long as we are breathing. Our humanity is sculpted by the relationships into which we are born and live. In the rather lovely formulation of orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, being is communion.

This being so, it helps us understand how each of us is marked and altered by exchange. For if we are relationally-constituted beings (another ugly phrase: let us just say 'persons' for shorthand and ignore the debate around that term) it follows that we are different persons at different times and in different places. Or, put another way, different relational aspects our personhood come to the fore in different circumstances.

Thus, when I am at home I am primarily a husband and a father. With other relatives, I am a son, brother, nephew and so on. At work, I am an employee, a colleague, sometimes a client, sometimes a supplier. With friends I am a friend. When reading I am usually a learner; when lecturing an educator; when debating an advocate. The list goes on.

When, many years ago, I worked for the Henley Centre, we conducted some qualitative research among 'consumers' to understand how they understood themselves. The results were instructive and edifying, as words like wife, husband, mother, father, friend, colleague, footballer, supporter, and the like were common, whereas 'consumer' or 'shopper' were much rarer.

It is not that we are never consumers or shoppers. There are times and places when we do shop and we do consume, and that is perfectly right. The problem is that as we move from having a market economy to being a market society (one of Sandel's best soundbites) we increasingly find ourselves thinking and operating as consumers everywhere, irrespective of how different each relational context is. And, quite clearly, the more you think of yourself as a consumer at home, at work, with friends, with fellow sports fans, etc, the less you become a parent, spouse, friend and or fan.

Sandel's book is a plea for us to think morally about life today. "Public discourse", he laments, is rancorous and empty, and although he has the US in his sights for most of the book, much of what he says applies equally to Britain. The problem with politics, he argues, is not too much moral debate but too little.

Most public figures will shy away from moral discourse, for fear of being accused of 'moralising', 'preaching', 'sermonising', 'lecturing' 'judging', 'hypocrisy', etc (it is telling how many critical words we have to hand here). But that won't do.

The rejection of moral discernment and judgement in favour of the supposed panacea that is "freedom" and "choice" is, in the long run, enormously harmful, corroding our relationships, our civic space, our political life, and our environment, turning us all slowly into consumers.

Sandel is aware that asking the bigger question, about the meaning and worth of goods, about the kind of people we want to be and the kind of society we want to live in, is hard work, liable to provoke tension. But he is also aware that it is not a debate we can hope to avoid if we wish to live well.

It is my belief that the best place to start is the rejection of the erroneous and harmful concept of the fully autonomous, independent human person that has underpinned so much public thought over recent decades, in favour of a relational idea, in which our rich inter-dependence is recognised, honoured and drawn into public discourse. It is only by thinking careful about the persons we are that we can hope to become the people we want to be.


Nick Spencer worked as a researcher and consultant for Research International, The Henley Centre, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and the Jubilee Centre before joining Theos. He is the author of several Theos reports and a number of books, including Darwin and God (SPCK, 2009) and Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011).