Michael J Sandel opens What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012) with a list (3-5) of some novel items that can be bought:

  • In California prisoners can pay $82 a night for better, quieter cells.
  • $8 to drive alone in a car pool lane during rush hour in Minneapolis.
  • Western couples can pay $6,250 for an Indian surrogate mother.
  • $500,000 will buy a green card and permanent residency in the US.
  • Hunting endangered black rhinos in South Africa: $150,000
  • Concierge doctor service – including 24 hour mobile phone number – up to $25,000 per year.
  • The right to emit one metric ton of carbon in the atmosphere, €13.

And some new ways to make money:

  • Sell tattooed advertising space on your body.
  • Act as a human guinea pig in drug trials.
  • Serve as a mercenary in Somalia or Afghanistan.
  • Stand in line overnight to secure a place in US Congressional hearing for a lobbyist.
  • As a student, get paid to read a book in Dallas.
  • Lose weight and get paid by your insurance company.
  • Buy life insurance for someone you don’t know who is sick or elderly.

The last three decades have been a period of market triumphalism and market values have invaded our life as never before. This is was not a choice we made but “economic imperialism” has spread stealthily so that the logic of buying and selling applies not just to material goods but the whole of life. The financial crisis has shaken faith in the practical application of markets, but has also raised other questions about the morality of markets. The issue is not just a few greedy bankers, we must ask what markets are for, what areas of our life do we want them to manage and whether there are some things that money can’t buy.

Markets moving into areas such as “health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard of thirty years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted.” (8) There are two reasons why we should be concerned about this, Sandel argues. One is about equality, the other is about corruption.

Consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters… as money comes to buy more and more – political influence, good medical care, a home in a safe neighbourhood rather than a crime-ridden one, access to elite schools rather than failing ones – the distribution of income and wealth looms larger and larger… The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. (8-9)

Economists assume that markets are “inert” – that they do not affect the goods that are exchanged, but Sandel believes that this is not true – markets leave their mark and sometimes the values of the market will force out other norms and values that we should worry about preserving.

We don’t allow people to sell other people and we don’t allow them to sell their rights and obligations as citizens (you can’t buy a substitute for jury duty or sell your vote) – the idea of outsourcing such obligations demeans them and values them in the wrong way. Some things are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities. That means that making choices about where markets belong raises “moral and political questions, not merely economic ones.” (10) To answer these questions, Sandel says, we have to understand the “moral meaning” of goods and the proper way of valuing them – something that didn’t happen in the era of market triumphalism and, as a result “…we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society” (10). A market economy is a tool “for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.” (11)

So the fundamental questions becomes: “Do we want a market economy, or a market society?” (11) What are the limits of markets? What role should they play in our society and personal relations? What cannot be bought or sold?

To answers these questions effectively we need to overcome the continuing power of market thinking and address the poor quality of our public discourse. Sandel believes that reasoned public debate on controversial moral questions is possible. Indeed, he argues, the reintroduction of moral and spiritual debate into our political sphere could rescue it from its current vacuity. It needs to re-engage with the questions people care about. We need, once again, to debate what we mean by “the good life” and not always demand that people leave their beliefs at the door 1.

Markets appeal because they don’t pass judgement on the preferences they satisfy – they don’t ask whether some forms of valuation are worthier than others:  “the only question the economist asks is, “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers” (14). This non-judgemental stance and our nervousness about engaging in debates about morality has drained public discourse and has allowed the dominance of “the technocratic, managerial politics that afflicts many societies today” (14). But we do make moral judgements about what and where we allow markets to work – we don’t let parents sell their children or citizens sell their vote – “And one of the reasons we don’t is, frankly, judgmental: we believe that selling these things values them in the wrong way and cultivates bad attitudes” (15). We need to think through the “moral limits of markets” and that requires us to reason together about what social goods we prize. We may not agree, but the process of reasoning together would make for a healthier public life and make us more aware of the price of markets.


Chapter 1: Jumping the Queue

Sandel considers how the market has found ways around queuing. In airports and amusement parks we can pay to jump past those who arrived before us. In some cities you can pay to access faster road lanes and there are even growing industries employing people to stand in line for others (started by lobbyists who didn’t want to have to wait around to get seats in US Congressional hearings). He extends this discussion to the idea of ticket scalping – not just for theatres and shows but in China the ticket scalpers sell tickets for appointments with hospital consultants to the highest bidder and in America it is possible to buy “concierge” doctor services with immediate, 24-hour access to a GP.

The problem, of course, is that concierge care for a few depends on shunting everyone else onto the crowded rolls of other doctors. It therefore invites the same objection levelled against all fast-track schemes: that it’s unfair to those left languishing in the slow lane… There seems a world of difference between the clamor of the crowded registration hall and the calm of the waiting room… But that’s only because, by the time the concierge patient arrives for his or her appointment, the culling of the queue has already taken place, out of view, by the imposition of a fee. (27-28)

These stories are, says Sandel, a sign of the times – the replacement of the egalitarian notion of “first-come-first served” with the “you-get-what-you-pay-for” ethic of the market. And this reflects something bigger – they way markets have inserted themselves into areas once governed by other norms. We shouldn’t worry about line-jumping or ticket scalping, the economic argument goes, because they allow the efficient allocation of resources to those that value them most highly – those who will pay most for a ticket – this is the utilitarian case for markets.

But this argument is unconvincing. Even if your goal is to maximize social utility, free markets may not do so more reliably than queues. The reason is that the willingness to pay for a good does not show those who value it most highly. This is because market prices reflect the ability as well as the willingness to pay. Those who most want to see Shakespeare, or the Red Sox, may be unable to afford a ticket. And in some cases those who pay the most for the ticket may not value the experience very highly at all. (31)

This casts doubt on a fundmental tenet of classical economics – that price is always the best way to control the distribution of goods. Sometimes willingness to stand in line is a better indicator of who really values something than willingness to pay a high monetary price. Whether one method of distribution – queuing or markets – is better is an empirical question and can’t be resolved by abstract economic reasoning.

But the utilitarian case for markets is open to a more fundamental objection, Sandel argues.  Some goods have values that go beyond their utility to buyer or seller. The way in which a good is allocated may be part of its value and so changing the allocation can be a corruption of the good: “We often associate corruption with ill-gotten gains. But corruption refers to more than bribes and illicit payments. To corrupt a good or a social practice is to degrade it, to treat it according to a lower mode of valuation than is appropriate to it.” (34) So, for example, when scalpers start selling tickets to Yosemite National Park camping sites or to masses conducted by the Pope for profit they are corrupting the good. “Treating religious rituals, or natural wonders, as marketable commodities is a failure of respect. Turning sacred goods into instruments of profit values them in the wrong way.” (37)

Markets and queues are two different ways of allocating goods, each appropriate to different activities, but the era of market triumphalism has seen the ethic of the market replacing the ethic of the queue – and displacing the egalitarian “first come, first served” principle it embodies. “’First come, first served,’ has an egalitarian appeal. It bids us to ignore privilege, power, and deep pockets – at least for certain purposes.” (39)


Chapter 2: Incentives

American charity Project Prevention pays drug-addicted women in America $300 to have sterilizations so they don’t give birth to drug-addicted children and pays HIV positive Kenyan women $40 be fitted with intrauterine devices so they won’t give birth to HIV positive children. This seems to make sense when judged from market terms says Sandel, it is a voluntary arrangement and it produces gains for both parties, increasing social utility but it has provoked outrage. Why?

Sandel argues that twin concerns, coercion and bribery, reveal different reasons to resist the expansion of markets into areas they don’t belong.  The coercion objection worries that the poor or addicted woman may not be acting freely – she may be coerced by the necessity of her situation. The bribery concern is different – it is not about the conditions of the deal but about the nature of the good being sold: “we corrupt a good, an activity, or a social practice whenever we treat it according to a lower norm than is appropriate to it” (45-46).

Economics claims not to make moral judgments – the price system allocates goods according to preferences, it doesn’t assess the worth of those preferences – but increasingly economists find themselves entangled in moral issues, for two reasons: “one reflects a change in the world, the other a change in the way economists understand their subject.” (48) Markets, and market-oriented thinking, have expanded their reach into new areas of society and economists have transformed their discipline applying the idea of the rational economic actor to all spheres of human activity. They assume that “all human relations are, ultimately, market relations.” (61) But “markets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose – and promote – certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged. “ (64)

Sandel takes the example of Israeli childcare centres that faced the problem of parents arriving late to pick up children. The nurseries introduced a fine for those who were late, hoping to reduce the numbers. But parents “treated the fine as if it were a fee. Rather than imposing on the teacher, they were simply paying him or her to work longer” (65) and there were more late pick-ups, not fewer. Fines “register moral disapproval, whereas fees are simply prices that imply no moral judgement” (65) – so when we fine people for parking in a disabled parking space we are not just charging them a fee for the convenience of parking close to the store, we are making a morally significant point.

Sandel extends this discussion to issues of the environment. Looking at the market in tradable pollution permits, Sandel expresses concern that such markets outsource obligations and therefore undermine “the moral stigma attached to despoiling the environment” (73) and, by letting the rich buy their way out of the duty to reduce their own emissions, the system undermines a sense of “shared sacrifice necessary to future global cooperation on the environment” (73). Similarly carbon offsets, while reflecting a laudable impulse – to put a price on the damage we do to our environment – also contain the risk that those who use them will consider themselves absolved of further responsibility. By “commodifying and individuating” our responsibility such schemes could have the same effect for charging for late pick-ups at the nursery – giving misbehaviour a moral license.

What should we do when the promise of economic growth or economic efficiency means putting a price on goods we consider priceless. Sometimes, we find ourselves torn about whether to traffic in morally questionable markets in hopes of achieving worthy ends. (79)

Economist Greg Mankiw has argued that the “economy” encompasses all human interactions and thus that social action is reduced to the way people respond to certain incentives. In Freakonomics Levitt & Dubner argues that incentives are “the cornerstone of modern life” (85) but the notion of incentive is relatively new to economics. It appears nowhere in classical economics and does not becoming prominent until the 1980s and 1990s (85). But despite their newly developed interest in incentives, economists still deny that they “traffic in morality.” However, the wider they encourage the spread of markets into noneconomic spheres, the more entangled economists become in moral questions. In noneconomic areas it becomes less plausible that everyone’s preferences are equally defensible and “if that’s the case, it’s unclear why we should satisfy preferences indiscriminately without inquiring into their moral worth” (89).

Examples such as the failure of the Israeli nurseries to reduce the number of parents arriving late demonstrate that the price mechanism is not always reliable. The outcome of this experiment makes sense only “if you recognise that marketizing a good can change its meaning…  What was once seen as a moral obligation… was now seen as a market relationship” (89-90). So in putting a price on activities we have to be aware of whether that monetary relationship crowds out existing nonmarket norms and impacts on our moral understanding of the interaction.

To decide whether to rely on financial incentives, we need to ask whether those incentives will corrupt attitudes and norms worth protecting. To answer this question, market reasoning must become moral reasoning. The economist has to ‘traffic in morality’ after all. (91)


Chapter 3: How Markets Crowd Out Morals

Sandel opens this chapter by asking: are the some things money can’t buy. He notes that a hired friend is not the same as a real one and that even if you could buy a Nobel Prize or an Oscar their value would be eliminated in the act of purchase. Such things are defined precisely by the fact that they cannot be bought. Which leads to another question: “Are there some things that money can buy but shouldn’t?” (95) We could buy a kidney or a child if there were markets for such things, for example, and they would still be a kidney or a child but though we can buy such things most people would feel that we shouldn’t. Sandel argues that while there appears to be a clear distinction between things we can’t buy and things that shouldn’t for sale, there is actually a connection.

Friendship and the social practices that sustain it are constituted by certain norms, attitudes and virtues. Commodifying these practices displace these norms – sympathy, generosity, thoughtfulness, attentiveness – and replaces them with market values… the reason we normally can’t buy friends – the purchase would destroy the relationship – sheds light on how markets corrupt expressions of friendship… Money can buy these things, but only in somewhat degraded form. (107)

Sandel says that in the debate about what money can and cannot buy, two objections recur. The first is about fairness – about the inequality that market choices may reflect – and the other is about corruption – the way in which attitudes and norms are dissolved by market logic.

The fairness and corruption objections differ in their implications for markets: The fairness argument does not object to marketizing certain goods on the grounds that they are precious or sacred or priceless; it objects to buying and selling goods against a background of inequality severe enough to create unfair market conditions… The corruption argument, by contrast, focuses on the character of the goods themselves and the norms that should govern them. So it cannot be met simply by establishing fair bargaining conditions. Even in a society without unjust differences of power and wealth, there would still be things that money should not buy. This is because markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket norms worth caring about. (113)

Sandel looks at the example of the Swiss attempt to find somewhere to store their nuclear waste. One group of researchers asked locals in one site whether they’d support their area being chosen as the location for the facility. They found 51 percent in favour. Then they repeated the survey asking people if they would be in favour of the proposal if they were compensated with yearly cash payments. Support fell to 25 percent. And increasing the incentive didn’t change the response.

For many villagers, willingness to accept the nuclear waste site reflected public spirit – a recognition that the country as a whole depended on nuclear energy and that the nuclear waste had to be stored somewhere. If their community was found to be the safest storage site, they were willing to bear the burden. Against the background of this civic commitment, the offer of cash to residents felt like a bribe, an effort to buy their vote… [they] explained their opposition by saying they could not be bribed… The intrusion of market norms crowded out their sense of civic duty. (116)

And once these other norms are crowded out by markets, replacing them can be difficult – when the Israeli nurseries ended the fines for late parents after 12 weeks, the increased rate of late arrivals persisted: “Once the monetary payment had eroded the moral obligation to show up on time, the old sense of responsibility proved difficult to revive.” (119)

One of the core tenets of the logic of markets is not frequently make explicit (Sandel references Arrow, Lawrence Summers and Sir Dennis H Robertson) but remains intrinsic. It states that “ethical behaviour is a commodity that needs to be economized. The idea is this: we should not rely too heavily on altruism, generosity, solidarity or civic duty, because these moral sentiments are scarce resources that are depleted with use.” (126) Sandel argues that this ignores the possibility that “our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use but enlarged with practice” (128) – and that other virtues may not be preserved by introducing markets but atrophy with disuse.

Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously. (130)


Chapter 4: Markets in Life and Death

Sandel considers the way in which modern society has even created markets in death. He looks at the history of life insurance – which was banned in many countries for centuries as distasteful gambling on death – and on modern innovations such as the  practice of “dead peasants insurance” in which corporations took out life insurance on their staff 2 and so profited from their death and the linked “viaticals” business in which companies buy policies from the ill – gambling that they will die soon and so boosting profits. He goes on to consider “death pools” – the practice of gambling on the death of celebrities that grew on the Internet in the 1990s – calling it the “dark twin of life insurance – the wager without the redeeming social good” (143).  Such business is not unique on profiting from death – coroners, undertakers and gravediggers do too, but they are not morally compromised – crucially they do not rely on the death of a particular person.

Sandel then moves on to the example of the DARPA’s attempt to set up the “terrorism futures market” – an effort to harness the so-called “wisdom of the crowd” to predict where terrorists would strike next – and the predicable moral outrage that accompanied gambling on mass murder. This market was based on the assumption not just that markets are the best way of distributing goods but on a much more ambitious claim that they are “the best way of aggregating information and predicting the future… The claim that free markets are not only efficient but also clairvoyant is striking” (152). But even if it is true that markets can predict the future does our repugnance at profiting from some items – such as murder – mean that we should reject it even if it works?

Perhaps, under dire circumstances, this would be a moral price worth paying. Arguments from corruption are not always decisive. But they direct our attention to a moral consideration that market enthusiasts often miss… we might decide to live with the debased moral sensibilities such a market would promote. But that would be a devil’s bargain, and it would be important to remain alive to its repugnance. (154)


Chapter 5: Naming rights

Sandel then turns to the commercialization of society, starting with sport. From the “memorabilia market” that has turned autograph hunting from a child’s pastime to an aggressive business, through the stripping away of the names of traditional arenas and replacing them with sponsor titles, to the growing divisions inside arenas between the rich and the poor – exemplified by corporate boxes. Sport has been thoroughly infiltrated by market values.

For most of the twentieth century, ballparks were places where corporate executives sat side by side with blue-collar workers, where everyone waited in the same lines to buy hot dogs or beer, and where rich and poor alike got wet if it rained. In the last few decades, however, this has changed. The advent of skybox suites high above the field of play has separated the affluent and the privileged from the common folk in the stands below. (173)

This division, Sandel argues, represents a wider social trend in which the rich and the poor share fewer and fewer common social spaces and the colonization of public spaces by corporations. One of the key drivers of this colonization process is advertising. He points to spread of advertising in public spaces [from public toilets to parks]; “personal” advertising [people changing their names – and even trying to sell their unborn baby’s name (187) – having adverts tattooed on their body, repainting their homes]; and of municipal advertising [on everything from public beaches to fire hydrants and police cars, and even in jails and schools]. He notes that the response to such intrusion is often couched in “the moral vocabulary of corruption and degradation”:

…to speak of corruption and degradation is to appeal implicitly, at least, to conceptions of the good life. Consider the language employed by the critics of commercialization: ‘debasement,’ ‘defilement,’ ‘coarsening,’ ‘pollution,’ the loss of the ‘sacred.’ This is a spiritually charged language that gestures towards higher ways of living and being. It is not about coercion and unfairness but about the degradation of certain attitudes, practices and goods. The moral critique of commercialism is an instance of what I’ve called the corruption objection. (187)

This moral objection to corruption means that considering where advertising is appropriate and requires more than just a debate about property rights and fairness – we also have to consider “the meaning of social practices and the goods they embody. And we have to ask, in each case, whether commercializing the practice would degrade it” (118). Even where the individual instance of advertising is not corrupting in itself, it may still contribute to the commercialization of society as a whole, and thereby to the degradation of social norms. The spread of advertising has proven contagious and the more we are exposed to it, the more normal it seems and the less we object when it invades some new area of our life.

Markets leave their mark…  once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong – and where they don’t. (201)

Deliberating about these things means considering what we mean by “the good life” and that, Sandel believes, requires us to bring moral and spiritual questions to the fore. We have become nervous of such debates and the disagreements they engender.

But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of goods and social practices we prize. (202)

We need to ask what kind of society we want to live in. Markets are diminishing the public spaces in which other norms used to find space for expression.

The more things money can buy, the fewer occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another… At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives… It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live. (203)

Democracy requires that citizens share “a common life” – that they bump up against each other and that we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, it is “how we come to care for the common good” (203). So the question about the place of markets in our society is really a question of what sort of society we want to live in.

Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? (203)


  1. Sandel is having a solid dig and the dominance of Rawlsian visions of the public sphere.
  2. Frequently without the employee’s consent or even knowledge, and retained the policies long after the individuals had left employment
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