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What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits…

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

by Michael J. Sandel

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This is one of those important books which makes you think really hard about the way our world is heading. I think the most horrifying image in it was the one where eggs were being used to advertise forthcoming TV shows. Not on the egg carton, but on the eggs themselves. Well, that and the horrible segregation and commercialisation of sporting events which seem to have removed any vestige of the true meaning of the word 'sport' from that world.

It's great to see someone try to re-introduce a bit of morality into the hard-nosed world of economics. ( )
  AJBraithwaite | Aug 14, 2017 |
From my review for Cannonball Read 5 ...

Alright, back to the non-fiction books I love. Michael Sandel is a modern philosopher who is interested in issues of justice. In fact, his book “Justice” is a fantastic read for people who are interested in philosophy but cringe at the idea of popping open Hume or Kant on a cold winter’s day.

This book looks at whether there are any moral reasons to not allow the market to ‘take care of things.’ Some of his areas of focus are likely ones that you have considered previously (possibly over a beer with friends). Should people be able to sell their kidneys? Did that student really get into Harvard because of his talent, or because his mom could buy the entire campus twice over? Is that fair? Does it matter if it is or isn’t?

Sandel argues from a premise that some might not accept: that “making markets more efficient is no virtue in itself.” Instead, he’s interested in why people might cringe at the commodification of certain components of our lives. Why, if markets are so great and supposedly will sort out the distribution of goods and services in the most efficient way possible, do some markets make us so uncomfortable?

Each example in the book addresses one of two arguments – the argument from fairness and the argument from corruption. In the first case, we might consider where a certain market is fair if the person participating may not REALLY have much of a choice. Again, think about the kidney example. Sure we all own our bodies, but the concern with allowing a market in kidneys is that only the poor would end up selling them, essentially turning them into spare parts for wealthy people, and leaving people who cannot afford kidneys at the whim of donors. The second argument looks at whether the nature of certain things might be corrupted simply by market involvement. Advertising in schools is a prime example of that.

The book is broken down into five parts – an introduction to the issues he plans to address (and a background on markets and examples of market transactions that might raise an eyebrow), a section on incentives (and how they don’t always work the way you’d think), markets replacing moral discussion, the insurance market (which features my favorite portion of the book, where he examines third-party life insurance purchasing), and the right to name different public and private spaces (think Citibank Field in NYC). The concepts are not difficult to grasp and are well-written and interesting.

While I do have a philosophy background, I want to emphasize that one is not necessary AT ALL to enjoy this book. If you’re interested in markets and a discussion about why they might not always be the best way to distribute goods, this is a really great read for you. In fact, I suggest getting your favorite discussion partner (perhaps someone who doesn’t always agree with you) to read the book at the same time so you can have a lively chat about it all. ( )
  ASKelmore | Jul 8, 2017 |
A critique of the notion that markets should guide our social and individual decisions because putting a price on everything invites inequality and corruption. He gives many specific examples where making things commodities makes them less functional. It's basically a dispassionate moral argument that we should, as a society, begin to negotiate more clearly and openly what should not be governed by the assumptions of market fundamentalism which erode communality.

"The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another . . . At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. . . . Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good. And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together." (p. 202-203)
  bfister | Jun 30, 2017 |
Is there anything money can’t buy? While most people agree you can’t buy happiness, should you at least be able to try? In his latest work, Michael Sandel reasons why we should not be able to buy certain things, and completely misses the purpose of the free market in the process. Topics covered in this brief book include queues, incentives, morals, betting on death, and naming rights. These subjects are each supported with numerous examples that are both engaging and thought provoking. Sandel organizes his book in such a way that he anticipates his readers’ questions and does his best to cover all sides to his arguments. Still, as a proponent of free markets I found some frustrating flaws in his central arguments, and wish he had devoted more time to explaining why his arguments were worth caring about rather than how they were the failing pieces of markets.

Sandel’s two main arguments for why some things should not be accessible to markets are fairness and corruption. If paying someone to stand in line for you at a ticket booth is unfair to those who also want tickets but who cannot pay someone to stand in line for them, should the practice of paying line-standers be illegal? This is the argument Sandel makes regarding queues of all sorts, but I fail to see why fairness even must come in to play. What about the people who have no money to buy tickets but still want them? Should they be able to get tickets as well? Of course not, and no one would say it’s unfair that they were denied tickets because they had no money.

Paying a line-stander to get tickets equates to an increase in the ticket price, and the rules of supply and demand will govern the practice. If the individuals distributing the tickets think that paying line-standers is corrupting their operation (Sandel’s other argument), why couldn’t they just issue non-transferrable tickets? If the individuals who think paid line-standers are unfair or corrupting feel strongly about it, then why don’t they boycott the line altogether? I cannot see how fairness is an issue, and corruption is easily taken care of by the voice of the participants in a truly free market.

Sandel also argues that incentives such as paying children to read books, paying drug addicts to get sterilized and paying for other countries to reduce their carbon emissions rather than reducing our own are ways markets are corrupting and demoralizing our lives. While some of the scenarios he mentions seem shocking and even repulsive, when you step back from the situation you realize that all the instances involve consenting individuals who are maximizing their interests in the situation, or else they would not have involved themselves in the situation in the first place. For example, while paying a drug addict to become sterilized sounds inhumane and degrading, the drug addicts would not have agreed to it if they did not see a personal benefit in the arrangement. No one coerced them into the agreement, and they acted out of free will.

Throughout the book, Sandel hints that by prohibiting these seemingly immoral practices in markets, the moral standards of individuals will remain high and intact. That is just wishful thinking though. Markets are really just a way to test and bring to light the morals of those who participate. The drug addicts would have been just as willing to accept money for sterilization whether or not it was legal. Their morals would not suddenly become higher or nobler because of a law. The same can be said for any one of the other situations Sandel proposes. The way to moralize our lives is not through laws restricting free markets, but through something much more personal and priceless.

The one chapter on which I was a bit conflicted was the one regarding markets in life and death. Here, Sandel discusses the surprising practice of individuals purchasing the life insurance policies of strangers, and receiving payouts on the deaths of those strangers. While I personally do not agree with this practice, and the same argument regarding morals discussed above could be applied here, it seems that there is another aspect of this practice that makes it questionable. Perhaps it is the incentive to cause a death that makes me more hesitant to leave this up to the free market. Whatever it is, I have more thinking to do on this subject, which I’m sure is exactly Sandel’s ambition.

No matter what your view is regarding economics, morals, or policy, Sandel succeeds in making you stop to ponder what it is you really think, and why you think that way. Though he may not have the greatest appreciation for what free markets can accomplish, his arguments are well-reasoned and explained clearly. What Money Can’t Buy is a quick read that will make you realize the astounding reach of markets, and may make you think twice about what it is you are voting for when you spend your dollar. ( )
  KallieGrace | Nov 26, 2016 |
A great book with good arguments that prices shouldn't be put on everything. He lists a number of interesting domains where buying and selling seems to be a dubious way of transaction. Though many readers may find that Sandel shouldn't have included some items, and other readers may find that he left out some important items, it is extremely worthwhile to think about all of his examples.
The only thing I found a bit unbalanced was the wholesale critique of economists as apologists of radical laissez-faire capitalism. I am myself an economist, and I can say that the (extreme) views of Gary Becker and colleagues, though influential, are not the only ideology in town, but unfortunately their protagonists are very vocal in the public discourse. Many economists work in the fields of social choice and welfare economics will nod their heads while reading Sandel's arguments, so it would be wrong to damn all economists for promoting commercialism and corporatocracy. But I agree that two things are too rarely articulated: that economics is never purely descriptive because it is largely based on (implicit) utilitarian assumptions; and that market allocations are the result of both willingness to pay AND ability to pay. I think economics can only benefit, also in terms of public image, from highlighting these points more.
The end of the book was a little anticlimactic. It is a pity that Sandel does not dig deeper: till the last few pages, all he does is present a long list of intrusions of commerce in our private lives. But often, these are attempts to solve a deeper problem. If ticket scalpers invade the allocation system for doctor appointments, then there is a shortage of health services. If schools sell out their educational material to corporate advertising, then there is a shortage of education funding. Sandel is right that everybody should have a right to live a decent life, which includes basic health and education. But then, solutions must be found that there is inclusive access to these social goods. Sandel is also right that letting profiteers in the ways he describes in his book is not conducive to the provision of these goods, but he does not mention any solution. There are multiple possibilities to prevent the complete sellout of society while at the same time providing people with a basic right of decency, but Sandel leaves the reader somewhat depressed as he fails to touch on them. ( )
  Frederic_Schneider | Jan 23, 2016 |
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What Money Can’t Buy has an easy charm about it, but it also has structural defects which do not, I think, come from its American focus and do not depend on how many of Sandel’s pet hates you share. It is an exercise in persuasive pamphleteering rather than a systematic exploration.

The irony is that I think Sandel would have written a more powerful book had he not tried to argue the case on free-market economists' own dry, dispassionate terms. It is, as he rightly points out, the language in which most modern political debate is conducted: "Between those who favour unfettered markets and those who maintain that market choices are free only when they're made on a level playing field." But it feels as if by engaging on their terms, he's forcing himself to make an argument with one hand tied behind his back. Only in the final chapter does he throw caution to the wind, and make the case in the language of poetry.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374203032, Hardcover)

Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities? Selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?

In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes on one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets?

In recent decades, market values have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life—medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations. Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Is this where we want to be?

In his New York Times bestseller Justice, Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating, with clarity and verve, the hard moral questions we confront in our everyday lives. Now, in What Money Can’t Buy, he provokes an essential discussion that we, in our market-driven age, need to have: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society—and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets don’t honor and that money can’t buy?

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:40 -0400)

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Sandel argues that we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society and examines one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?… (more)

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