Alun Williams'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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Jun 14, 12

Read in June, 2012

I have sometimes been puzzled by how left-leaning people are outraged when privatisation, or the introduction of a market, are proposed as reforms to how a public service is delivered. I have never really understood why somebody would care about this, so long as the job gets done better and more efficiently. This book has changed my thinking, and I think its message needs to be debated widely and publicly.
The author, Michael Sandel, is an American political philosopher, and a professor at Harvard. He wears his learning very lightly in this book, which is both short and easy to read, but nevertheless extremely thought-provoking. His central contention is that over the last thirty years the West has moved from having a market economy to being a market society, and that this has happened without any proper consideration of the consequences. Sandel argues that the introduction of a market, or other forms of commercialisation, has moral implications that need to be debated: if the debate does not take place than moral choices will in effect have been made unconsciously. Throughout the book Sandel gives a host of examples of small changes to how things are done, which cumulatively make for a world where there is far less public space, and where rich and poor, or the elite and hoi polloi, are more isolated from one another. Perhaps too many of these examples are drawn from American society for the book to be quite as relevant as it might be to the UK, (though the net is cast widely - with examples from China, Scandinavia and the UK), but at times I was chilled at the thought that some of the more recent developments in the US might soon be coming here too.
Sandel does not argue that the introduction of a market, or of financial incentives, is always wrong, just that one should not assume that there are no moral implications to doing so. In some cases the benefit of introducing a market may outweigh the costs. However, there will be few readers if any, who are not disturbed by some of the things that have been done in the name of reducing the cost of government.
Although I am being slightly generous in giving this book five stars on Amazon (it is a little too American for this British reader), I think every decision maker working in the public sector and government to read this book. Whether it exposes a dangerous unconscious assumption, or helps someone to articulate their opposition to change more coherently, or to better anticipate unintended consequences of a change they are proposing, this book will usefully inform the reader's thinking.
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