Jon's Reviews > What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

What Money Can't Buy by Michael J. Sandel
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's review
May 28, 2012

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Sandel is a wonderfully clear writer, whose course on justice at Harvard is supposedly one of the most popular at the university. Here he lists all the ways market norms have crept into our lives and replaced other values. His first contrast is between the ethics of the queue (first come first served) being transformed to the ethics of the market (everything is for sale and you get what you pay for). His examples range from relatively innocent and ad hoc (bribing a maitre d' for a good table) to more institutionalized (buying more expensive tickets at Disney World which allow you to jump the queues for rides) to really egregious (buying your way to a doctor in China when peasants have to wait for days.) He moves on to selling blood, selling body parts, even selling space on your body for tatooed advertising. Some of his best stuff is on gifts, which economists HATE, because they wouldn't exist if people really operated the way economists say they do. Gifts ALWAYS result in "dead weight" loss of value (the difference between what someone pays for a gift to you, and what you would have paid for it yourself.) So even with the prevalence of simply writing a check as a gift, or the incredible growth of gift cards, people still (sometimes) insist on giving a real gift, because it represents attention, consideration, esteem and even love, some of the many values the market can't reflect. The dichotomy is perfectly represented by the man who caught Mark McGwire's record-setting 62nd home run ball in 1998 and then simply gave it to McGwire. He was honored for his heroic selflessness by an appearance on the Today show and a trip to the White House; but he was also excoriated by some economists for being foolish and profligate with something that could have generated wealth. Sandel asks why in our society it could no longer have been regarded as an act of simple decency? We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Finally at the end he says that we have to decide by what values we want to live, because if we don't, the market will decide for us. And deciding means having to have some idea of what makes up the good life. But at that point his analysis stops. Just when I most wanted his opinion.
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Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-3 of 3) </span> <span class="smallText">(3 new)</span>

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message 1: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth this is right up my alley!

message 2: by Snorri (new)

Snorri Sturluson Something I've been thinking about a long time: Shouldn't every argument/discussion/talk radio rant about society and economics and culture start with everyone involved being forced to state his or her bottom line? Shouldn't we all do that before we read a book like this or listen to a political debate or argue about the Tea Party? Speaking of Tea Partiers, I assume their bottom line is something like: The best end of a civilized society is to ensure the maximum amount of individual liberty possible for each person. (And, I assume the argument goes, every other good will follow.) So what is my bottom line? I know it's incredibly wimpy-sounding, but right now I'm leaning toward: Given an incredibly wealthy society such as ours, there must be no child who is hungry or without adequate medical care. Once we achieve that, then we can come up with a new bottom line.

message 3: by Jon (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jon Sounds like you should read his "Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do?" which I'm about half-way through.

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