knig'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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Sandel is worried about the lack of moral limits of markets and posits that the time has come to hold a debate, as a society, that would enable us to decide, again as a society, where ‘markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong’. This to address the precipitous decline in moral values and the ensuing corruption when having a market economy morphs into ‘being’ a market economy.

Objection. Since when, pray tell, have moral values been determined democratically in any society. What ho. Moral values have traditionally, in the West, stemmed from God and the State. Its a top-bottom coalition approach. We don’t, after all, vote or legislate on morality.

But yes, there is a general consensus that morality on the whole has become rather anorexic of late. To me its pretty clear why (later on this). To Sandel, its the markets wot done it.

To this effect he starts off with a laborious exploration of queue jumping. Is it moral, or not, or maybe, um, just a little bit moral? Its no secret that the last two decades have witnessed a proliferation of a sale of rights to ‘jump the queue’. Disneyland, specially designated lanes on the highway, concierge doctors, concert ticket resales, airline checkins: OK. Is it morally right? Is it morally right to pay a hobo to stand in line for theatre tickets, thus depriving the less ‘meaned’ behind you of a ticket? Is it morally right to ‘scalp’ for healthcare therefore depriving, ostensibly, others of access? Is it morally right to resell/buy free papal mass tickets? The Inuit have quotas for ‘killing’ whales and walruses as a means for subsistence. Is it morally right to sell the quota to hunters who will pay you thousands to make the quota kill? How about paying a drug addicted woman to insert an IUD so she doesn’t bear drug babies year on year? Paying for a kidney? Paying for a baby? Is everything up for sale and is nothing sacred? By commoditising traditionally non market transactions are we not only corrupting our moral values which bind us as a society, but also corrupting our civic spirit, which as we know (and I concur) allows for gratuitous donation of services which would otherwise cost the state exuberantly and not only that, but would in fact decrease the value of the transaction by virtue of commoditising it.

The latter is not an insignificant point. Despite lunatics like Keneth Arrow who claim that commercializing an activity doesn’t change it, I think even the layperson can hazard a guess that it ain’t so. Would it surprise anyone, and it didn’t surprise me that for example, US lawyers who were asked to reduce their fees for the needy refused to do so, yet agreed to do it pro-bono as charitable work? Clearly if you try to monetise a duty within the realm of civic ‘obligess’ it becomes a transaction to be valued commercially and the value of charity loses its weight. As Titmuss proved with blood donation studies people will give more voluntarily than when paid.

Here is where Sandel flounders. And yes, I know he is a modern guru, commanding audiences of thousands upon thousands on any of his given lectures, and I am but a lowly lone voice and so who am I etc, and so forth. But yet.

The problem I think is in distinguishing between the commoditisation of state/civic gratis orientated services and purely market ones. You can’t just lump them together. What Sandel is implying is that through market commoditisation we are getting a result whereby an individual who is willing to pay for a third world kidney and jumps the queue and kills a walrus will also refuse or refute a charitable donation (Blood. Giving up a seat for the elderly. Whatever) because he has become morally corrupted in general.

I’m just not sure this is the case. We human beings are very good at compartmentalising. Plus, there is no evidence for it. Sandel is making a speculative jump in saying commercialisation crowds out public civic character. Traditionally this is not so. Were not Robber Barons charitable? Bloody hell, so were the Nazis. I think as long as the State doesn’t try to commodotise our civic responsibility, confusion shouldn’t arise.

That was a second objection. Now on to my third. Lets look at the purely market transactions and see what that speaks about our morals. Now yes, marketisation crowds out morals: no doubt about it. It would be ludicrous to argue otherwise. The difference is Sandel laments, whereas I say, whats the point of keeping these values? Why shouldn’t they change? When Ibsen’s Doll house and Ghosts played to Europe at the turn of the century, he caused moral outrage. A woman dares to stand up to her husband? And, gasp, leave him? Well, we’ve seen the back of that morality, alright, and I don’t think anyone laments its passing.

Back to the queue jumping. Clearly Sandel finds it reprehensible. Wheres it going to end? We all queue for buses and loos, right, are we going to fast track that as well? Yes, I say. We should. Why didn’t I think of that before? This queuing business. Is it a KPI of a morally functioning society? What about the countries that don’t have it? I have personally been stranded at bus queues in India, Thailand and Macedonia where the notion didn’t exist. The bus comes and it is engulfed in a human wave of 360 degrees, a perfect circle, soundwave, whaetever. Are these people morally corrupt, then because they don’t queue but fight?? Ignoramuses? Is a queue a moral stratagem? What is Sandel getting at?

Its not that a queue is a marker for morality. I believe its lack though is, an indicator for a failed state. A queue is a control mechanism, not a moral attitude. If you have a market where buses ‘come in threes’, its easy to implement a queue system. You didn’t catch the bus? Oh shucks. Next one is in ten minutes. But how about this is the evening bus. You didn’t catch it? See you tomorrow, same bat place, same bat time. Lets see if Darwinism doesn’t kick in, then.

This might be what Sandel is worried about: a sort of Ballardian breakdown in society where we start behaving like animals because commoditisation is allowing queue jumping. But that simply isn’t the case. Yet. Queue jumping in the West has NOT displaced access. It has merely restructured it.

Yet it niggles him. Why can’t we all wait equally in line? This is, at the crux of it, what this guy really wants. It reinforces his ideas of fairness. Which he ties to morality. On a superficial level, he is going to garner die hard supporters. Lets face it, we’re all waiting in line for a Starbucks, and some brazen twit cuts the line: kill him, right?

Faugh. What we are really saying is, ‘don’t fuck with OUR market’. But here is the problem as I see it.

Traditionally, we have not had a SINGLE market. One where rich and poor congregate and battle it out. Recently I went on a London Tours walk. We stopped outside a picturesque pub in Chelsea. ‘Bear in Mind’, the tour guide said, ‘that pubs were traditionally the ‘fayre’ of the working classes. The nobility went to their private clubs or drank at home at dinner parties’.

Well. Thats two market right there. The proletariat could be egalitarian about who was served in what order at the pub, since they were all homogenous. The aristocracy had a separate market. Nowadays we combine the two. We all want to go to Disneyland. Is it surprising that the rich find ways to appropriate the market? We simply didn’t ‘see’ it before, but it existed. What Sandel laments as market penetration was simply separate markets in the past. It has always existed and coincided harmoniously with an overarching morality.
The ultimate problem really is not that markets are immoral (which they are not) nor that they are crowding out morality (which they are, and have always done so). Reigning in markets to preserve fossilised values and morals can not be the answer: it is not sustainable. Morals NEED to change: they have always done so despite each generation’s passionate clinging on and lament.

The problem is that crowded out morals aren’t being replenished as they were in the past. With the Church depleted and the State worried about not being a ‘nanny’ or ‘Big Brother’, with a globalisation and competing moral codes, there is no one left on the arena to define the goal posts, and so crowding out, which has always happened, I suspect, now leaves a wasteland in its wake as no new universal morals are phoenixing to replenish the loss.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
October 21, 2013 – Shelved
October 21, 2013 – Shelved as: 2013
October 21, 2013 – Shelved as: not-quite-the-cut
October 21, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Travelin (new)

Travelin Having read your review and not the book, I get the impression of an intellectually slack, yet uncompromising American who puts anti-queue jumping as a shining example of democracy. On the other hand, the review contains a certain British shrug about class systems, so it's easier to admire the author's idealism, misguided and pretentious as it seems.


message 2: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Doesn't this guy teach at Harvard?
Shouldn't he be following his own advice and teach in a community college or a public university, then?
Greatly argued review Knig, I love your thought provoking reviews.


knig Travelin wrote: "Having read your review and not the book, I get the impression of an intellectually slack, yet uncompromising American who puts anti-queue jumping as a shining example of democracy. On the other ha..."

Hi Travelin, hail fellow well met. Just looked at your profile: had never heard of halfbakery, its marvellous!

@Dolors and @ TravelinApropos Sandel, he is actually being hailed as a Moral guru at the moment, the Lone Ranger willing to stand up to corporate corruption and greed and fight the good fight for basic human values. Every single review of this book spouts such rhetoric. Mostly people get riled up over issues such as exhorting kidneys out of third world citizens for money, paying for babies, and just a general disintegration of all round fairness (hence queue jumping, etc). I'm afraid my review won't be popular but I do want to question who determines morality, accept the fact that morality changes and refer to the is-ought fallacy (humes law). Just because at the moment in western thinking we deplore selling/buying a kidney for money, why is it necessarily morally wrong from a universal standpoint? The idea of removal of a body part is not moral or immoral in its own right. It is simply a surgical procedure. It is we who attribute a moral significance to it. So, for example: if I give up my kidney voluntarily to save my sister, child, nephew, whatever, that makes me a hero, right? No one would call such kidney removal immoral. Under sharia law if I steal, my hand will be chopped off. No one who subscribes to sharia law would consider that immoral. There are cases, also, of people who develop a hatred for their own body parts called apotemnophilia. These people get doctors to cut off healthy limbs. Neither doctors are indicted nor patients sectioned: we don't say they or the doctors are immoral; we just feel sorry for them. So why then, are we so quick to deem organ disposal for money (mind you, a voluntary transaction) as reprehensible, amoral, immoral, values deteriorating, etc, etc|? So I can donate my organs and I can cut off my organs, but I can't sell them. Well, says who? And why? These are some of the objections I had.

But then I just like to be ornery and contradictory.


knig OK, I've tried and tried to get ahold of Pippin, but being still alive, and obviously thriving with capitalist zealousness, hes making damn sure The Persistence of Subjectivity is not to darken my doorstep for less than £25 + pp. In any format. Electronic might even be more expensive. This is a shame because I'm a momentum reader, and would have devoured the ethical status today even, if I could have got hold of it reasonably. Alas, I must now move on: I've just finished The Poetics of Space and Bachelard has led me on to Henri Bergson, who happens to be free online, so hes next. But James, if you have time for a wee summary or atleast the nutshell version, it would be much appreciated: whats Pippin's criteria?


message 5: by Nick (new)

Nick Wellings (I am curious too, James. The title of Pippin's work sounds pretty damn enticing.)


message 6: by sologdin (new)

sologdin sounds like a pre-modern, neo-feudal, or proto-fascist critique of liberalism?

or: anytime someone starts talking about morals, i go buy more guns.


knig sologdin wrote: "sounds like a pre-modern, neo-feudal, or proto-fascist critique of liberalism?

or: anytime someone starts talking about morals, i go buy more guns."


Its the nostalgia d'antan of the over 40s, I think. We spend our youth rebelling and conversely, our 'golden years', conserving. In general, exceptions always apply of course (just not Sandel).

Hmmm, I wouldn't have pegged you pro guns though.(you know our cops here don't carry, right? Isn't that amazing?)


knig James wrote: "Sorry for the late response, knig. It's been a while since I read Pippin's book, and in my mind the impression his theories have made have been all mixed together with other Hegelian influences I'v..."

Thank you James. I must say straight off Sandel is not concerned about civility, but its still interesting to hear about Pippin. Also, the debate of independence and dependence on society seems tied in with the notion of individual vs state as in US vs. China say, and the 'social contract' in both countries. Fascinating stuff.


message 9: by sologdin (last edited Oct 25, 2013 03:26PM) (new)

sologdin knig wrote: "I wouldn't have pegged you pro guns though

i like firearms well enough, but the firearms manufacturers' trade groups in the US would make it unlawful to deprive the human fetus of its right to lethal self-defense.


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