Review: Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

by Dec 6, 2017Books, Culture

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I find it incredibly refreshing to find any writer who sees through the tempting veneer secularism has laid not just on our politics but on our lives. It’s a tempting veneer, because it is very hard—impossible, intractable—to find agreement with those whose “vision of the good life,” whose ways of valuing things, are different from one’s own. But those differences must be solved: either we’re going to allow surrogate parenting or we’re not, either we’re going to sanction kidney sales or we’re not, either we’re going to see problems with advertisements on report cards/police cars/foreheads or we’re not.

So we outsource our moral disagreements to supposedly neutral concepts such as “equality” or “fairness” or (negatively speaking) “harm”—or, increasingly, we simply outsource them to the market.

Sandel’s book, following his similar but more wide-ranging book *Justice*, is undeniably brilliant. Sandel, a legendary Harvard professor, points out countless ways in which letting market norms into our lives has pushed out other norms, better ways of valuing things. Sandel makes the point (as he did in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do) that it is impoverishing to our discourse to push metaphysical, yea, religious claims to the margins or further. Without exactly laying out his own vision of a good life, he insists that one’s vision “will out.” And an attentive reader can build up some understanding of Sandel’s vision by noticing what bothers him. He finds it demeaning to have an advertisement tattooed on one’s forehead, destructive of the goods that baseball was designed to foster when market reasoning is applied to the sport (see Moneyball), degrading of education when ads cover lockers in public schools.

I could possibly have wished for Sandel to have said more about his own vision of the good. I was surprised that almost the entire book was filled with analysis rather than evaluation (though the latter was often strongly implied, and sometimes briefly stated). I hoped for a final chapter in which he gave a constructive vision of that good life. But the meta-point of the book is excessively valuable: we will have a vision of the good shaped (I would specify) by our values, and letting the market decide questions of value is a self-harming cheat. I see in Sandel (and in Stanley Fish and in Steven D. Smith) something of a prophet pointing to massive cracks in our society’s foundation.

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