What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
By Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 244pp.

Michael Sandel is one of today’s leading and most controversial political theorists. “Leading” because of his classic works in the field of political theory; and “controversial” both because of both his challenge to John Rawls and his opening up his courses in the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) format. (That is, he makes his Harvard lectures available online for free—much to the consternation of traditionalists and the dismay of administrative bean counters.) What Money Can’t Buy continues in this pattern of capability and controversy as Sandel presents a thoughtful and articulate challenge to the increasingly dominant ideology that the principles and methods of the market should govern virtually everything we do.

The Summary

In the past few decades, America has gradually transformed from a society that merely has a strong and vibrant free market to a society that treats everything—including civic institutions, death, and friendship—as if it were a part of that market. And while the dominant economic wisdom is that such a transition is a good thing, Sandel argues that in making this cultural change we are destroying the morality of key components of our civic life. Sandel’s main contention is that “some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities” (10).

Sandel contends that, before we give in to this popular market mentality, we ought to keep two important truths in mind: first, that there are spiritual and moral boundaries that should constrain market forces; and second, that the market by its very nature actually corrupts the virtues of other social categories. Sandel writes:

When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way. (9)

Sandel gives the examples of children and voting:

We don’t allow parents to sell their children or citizens to sell their votes. And one of the reasons we don’t is, frankly, judgmental: we believe that selling these things values them in the wrong way and cultivates bad attitudes.

Thinking through the moral limits of markets makes these questions unavoidable. It requires that we reason together, in public, about how to value the social goods we prize. It would be folly to expect that a morally more robust public discourse, even at its best, would lead to agreement on every contested question. But it would make for a healthier public life. And it would make us more aware of the price we pay for living in a society where everything is up for sale. (15)

In other words, we do recognize at least some moral limits on the markets. What we need is a vibrant and engaged public debate about the proper locations of these limits and whether they have been pushed back too far in certain aspects of civic life. (The specific aspects Sandel considers will be listed in part below.)

Yet, it’s not enough to claim that we ought to have positive moral limits on markets: Sandel repeatedly emphasizes the negative effects of markets when they leave their own sphere and begin to intrude elsewhere in society. Specifically, Sandel points out that there are two primary objections to the growth of the market beyond its own traditional realm:

The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve. (110)

Sandel doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the first of these objections, beyond noting that the market, though ostensibly free, does not always provide the freedom of choice touted by its proponents. After all, “a peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea to feed his starving family, but his agreement may not really be voluntary. He may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation” (111).

This fairness argument, compelling though it occasionally can be, is not really the main thrust of the book. “Corruption” is Sandel’s primary concern.  He argues that the introduction of market principles into public life destroys the virtues that have traditionally defined our society, and cheapens (or even eliminates) the value of the public good in question. While his catalog of examples is too extensive to list in a “short” review, a breakdown of the chapters and a brief summary of the main topics covered will demonstrate the breadth of his examination (the lists of subjects in each chapter is just a sampling, not an exhaustive list):

Chapter 1: Jumping the Queue (Airport Security, Ticket Scalping for Hospital Treatment, Concierge Doctors, Paying to see the Pope)

Chapter 2: Incentives (Cash for Sterilization, Money for Grades, Being Paid for Weight Loss, Carbon Offsets, Paying to Hunt Endangered—or Non-Endangered—Species)

Chapter 3: How Markets Crowd Out Morals (Paying for: Friendship, a Wedding Toast, an Apology, Honor; The Rise of the Gift Card Culture; Selling Blood)

Chapter 4: Markets in Life and Death (Corporate  Life Insurance Policies on Workers (with Corporation as Beneficiary); Viaticals; Betting on Celebrity Death; A Futures Market on Where Terrorists Will Strike Next)

Chapter 5: Naming Rights (Selling Celebrity Autographs, Naming Sports Arenas, Sponsoring Public Parks and Other Amenities)

As can be seen even from this brief list, Sandel surveys a wide swath of our culture and shows that while in many ways the market mentality has become pervasive, there are still some areas where its influence rightly does not yet hold sway. Sandel argues that the continued expansion of the market mentality deserves careful consideration:

Once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong—and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.

Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. (202)

The Weaknesses

While the strengths of this short book easily outweigh its shortcomings, there are a few weaknesses worthy of note.

First, as is apparent from the short list of subjects above, Sandel’s approach is rather scattered. There is really no discernible order or pattern to the topics under consideration. I suppose it’s possible that Sandel is actually following the format of, oh, I don’t know, Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics or some such and I just missed it, but I suspect that is not the case. The order of the chapters, as well as the order of the individual subjects within each chapter, appears to be largely random. For example, we don’t really get to the meat of his objections to the market mentality until the middle of chapter three.

Second, Sandel proposes no solutions or alternatives to our “market mentality” other than to imply that we just shouldn’t think that way. While in some ways his failure to offer a solution weakens the book, it does allow Sandel to garner support for his anti-market-mentality position without alienating readers who might disagree with specific alternatives. For example, when considering the problem of school funding for textbooks, Sandel objects to corporate “sponsorship” of new textbooks, especially when such sponsorship results in biased content (he gives the famous example of the American Coal Foundation providing textbooks to fourth graders with a noted bias in the favor of coal as a power source (198)). Sandel contends that we should simply “raise the public funds we need to educate our children” (201), presumably by increasing taxes. I, by contrast, tend to think that, barring the physical deterioration of the books, very often we just don’t need new textbooks in the first place. After all, has math really changed so much in the last fifty years that it affects how we teach the basics?

For the most part, Sandel avoids such means-based arguments by refraining from suggesting a particular way out of our market-mentality muddle. An extra chapter at the end proposing a way forward—or even a framework for considering possible solutions—would have been an interesting and useful addition to an already interesting and useful book.

The third and biggest weakness of the book is that it is largely anecdote-driven. In fact, it’s almost completely anecdote-driven. Sandel rolls out story after story in defense of his overall theme but offers little in the way of philosophical reasoning or logical argument. This may very well be an intentional attempt to appeal to the market-oriented reader by using the sorts of language and examples that fit that particular worldview. Strictly philosophical reasoning may be less useful and effective when talking to the market-driven economist than stories, statistics, and short morality tales. Nevertheless, I would like to have seen (even briefly) a more thorough treatment of the philosophical and ethical aspects of his claims.

The Strengths

What Money Can’t Buy is, as we have come to expect from Michael Sandel, well written and thoughtful. Despite the somewhat scattered organization, the writing flows easily without sacrificing intelligent discussion and thoughtful engagement of the key issues. Frankly, this book was a delight to read—something that I unfortunately cannot say about many contemporary works of political philosophy.

The major strength of this book lies in Sandel’s criticisms of American society, which are by-and-large dead-on. While the increasingly pervasive market mentality is by no means the only or even the primary criticism that can be leveled at modern American culture, it is certainly true that the commodification of all aspects of society is an increasingly worrisome trend. That so many “conservatives” rush to embrace this market-mentality as a solution to our social ills merely compounds those ills by adding the moral problems of the marketplace to the moral problems of public life.

Sandel correctly notes that in reality, this is no solution at all. The problem is not that the market is evil per se; rather, the market operates according to its own set of rules and virtues. These rules and virtues are incompatible with those that govern non-market relationships, institutions, and ideas. The market mentality and the rules it generates are both unfair and corrupting when they go beyond their legitimate limits. As Sandel points out, we all understand that if I pay you money to spend time with me, we are not friends. The introduction of the market-mentality into this relationship has destroyed the very thing it is intended to create. The same could be said of any number of social relationships, institutions, and ideas—the rules of the market simply do not (or should not) apply to marriage, death, sports, and many, many other areas of life. We must remember that when we treat education like a commodity, or sports as if they should be driven by money, or friendship as if it can be purchased, we wrongly benefit some and punish others (the fairness argument), while at the same time destroying the true value of each (the corruption argument). What Money Can’t Buy appropriately challenges us to think carefully about not what money can buy, but what it shouldn’t.

And of course, one of the things that money can buy is this book, which I am happy to encourage you to do.

I received this book for free from the publisher; I was not required to write a positive review. 

Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University.