What Money Can’t Buy by Michael J. Sandel, is a must-read book for anyone interested in the morality of our modern society. Hopefully that is everyone. This book is at the intersection of morality, capitalism, law and modern life and how we should respond to it legally and ethically.
The problem is that much of what until recently was outside of the world of economic transactions for money has become dominated by it. Near the end of the book he shows some extreme examples, where the economics of advertising has come to dominate not only sports, but school systems. These sporting and educational activities have now become commercialized. School buses in some districts now have advertising plastered on the outside of them and inside of them too, just like municipal transportation buses. We and our children are subjected to non-stop bombardment of the obviously warped and self-serving values of advertising. Money in the form of advertising is replacing ethics as the key motivator of personal behavior. Non-market parts of society, like the family, are being influenced, even controlled, by market processes rather than interpersonal ones.
Markets have served the public interest well in creating goods and services for us all to enjoy, but they have now gained tremendous influence in parts of our lives that most people would agree they don’t belong. Markets are now considered the primary instruments for achieving the public good, but in the last few decades they have been defined too broadly as to the goods that they can create. What is challenged by Sandel is the expansion beyond the creation and distribution of material goods and services, which capital markets are very good at providing, into social realms where they shouldn’t be.
Nowadays you can pay extra to go to the head of a line queue, at airports, amusement parks and even theaters, and in China there is an industry for ticket scalping, or having people standing in line for you for money, sometimes for days, for a hospital appointment.
Sandel gives many examples of the corrupting of human social values by the inserting of monetary values into social transactions. Where should the market hold sway, and where should market values be excluded from transactions because they erode and corrupt the social values people value in their relations with one another? The market values work well in creating the physical products we value, but they destroy the interactive social values we also value and therefore market values should be excluded from those kinds of situations. Some things, such as natural wonders like Yosemite Valley, are a public heritage and their value is outside of market transactions, and they should be given extra status as non-market valuables. And yet there is a lot of money exchanged for rights to various things within that National Park.
The public must debate the situations where market values should be limited. Such things as health services, national defense, criminal justice and environmental protections only have a small market component and market values should not be overly influential in their use. These subjects are not economic questions; they are moral questions and they should be judged in different ways. It is time to change our social direction.
“We have drifted from being a market economy to becoming a market society.”
Here is a YouTube interview with Dr. Sandel about this book.