Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book review: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

By Professor Jeffery Atik

In What Money Can't Buy, Michael Sandel decries the emergence of markets that displace older norms, "commodifying" earlier forms of social organization that better correspond to our (or Sandel's) ethical intuitions. Sandel is bothered by fast track lanes, priority boarding, sales of organs or surrogate mothering services, paying for grades, and what he describes as the "skyboxification" of American society. While there remain some things money cannot buy, many things can be bought today that in prior times were allocated using non-market norms.

Sandel views with alarm the increasing hegemony of markets -- where markets are the go-to policy prescription for every social want. If we wish to boost the performance of inner-city school children, we should pay them for academic achievement -- according to a market-line of thinking. There's a cost, argues Sandel, to the application of market notions to novel domains, as markets operate (through "incentives," a neologism that Sandel mocks) to displace other values, such as inculcating a love of learning, devoting oneself to one's children and savoring a sense of community. Markets intrude on moral domains and limit the scope for moral discourse -- and this loss is under-appreciated.

All true enough -- but in at least some cases non-market values have displaced markets. For much of its history, the draft had market features. One could buy one's way out of Lincoln's draft -- or find a replacement to serve. And during most of the Vietnam era, the wealthy could avoid the draft by remaining in school. The draft, of course, has been suspended for several decades, but it is hard to imagine its return in any form with buy-outs. There may be other examples where the relevant institutional shift is away from markets: it was much easier to buy one's way into an Ivy League school a generation ago than it is now (Sandel concedes that even now it may be possible for some to do so).

Sandel fails to give a consistent account -- across his varied and many examples -- of precisely where and when markets exceed moral limits. He writes of "corruption" or "degradation" as if there were discernible moral content to these notions, but they are but baskets for a variety of values. Now I am as horrified as Sandel is at the thought of a hunter killing a black rhino (or even more cruelly, a defenseless walrus) -- and instituting fees for the privilege and then putting the collected funds to good use fails to appease me. But I admit (as certainly Sandel would) that others might not share my moral objections. That is, his and my valuation of an animal's life might not be broadly shared. In a softer version of his thesis, I suppose Sandel would assert that the permission-conceding effect of resorting to markets forecloses moral discourse -- though I'm not sure that foreclosure always follows.

At times, his instincts seem to reflect a certain squeamishness. I simply am not bothered by the idea that my employer might take out an insurance policy on my life, and hence have cause to root for my demise (so long as it does not act on its interests -- a point Sandel recognizes). I do not see how this leads to a coarsening of our general regard for life.
Sandel does demonstrate (by several examples) the possible errors of market-thinking in domains where strong norms operate. He recalls Richard Titmuss's famous 1970 comparative study of blood collection, The Gift Relationship. In the United Kingdom, blood is given by unpaid donors who act from civic motives. In contrast, the United States largely (though not exclusively) relies on blood banks, where donors are paid. This leads to the commodification of blood donations, with the result that the blood supply in the United States is more expensive, more risky and less secure.

Better is Sandel's "skyboxification" argument, in which newly created markets function to separate us from one another. We have long used status symbols to mark our position in the social hierarchy, and reside in highly (economically) segregated communities. As our society drifts farther and farther away from an egalitarian ideal, we have new opportunities -- such as the skybox -- to enforce class separation at what had been fundamentally a communal event. But that abandonment of the public schools in this country seems to be a far more serious concern -- and threat to our sense of community -- than tolerating the wealthy (and often bored) to isolate themselves from the fans during athletic events. Here, the existence of markets undercuts our democratic opportunities, yet private schools are a given.

There are certainly many domains where markets are kept at bay. You cannot buy an "A" at Loyola Law School -- as least I do not believe you can.

What Money Can't Buy is longlisted for the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

See my review of Philip Coggan's Paper Promises: Debt, Money and the New World Order, which is also longlisted for the 2012 FT/Goldman Sachs Award.

Follow me on Twitter @jefferyatik.

No comments: