In this video clip, Michael Sandel claims that in the last three decades we’ve gone from being a market economy to a market society. Everything is for sale. He says that his book, ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, is not suggesting that we abandon capitalism – which (he suggests) works well for organising the production of goods and services, but that we debate the limits of the market – where do markets serve the public good, and where should other values prevail?
H/T to Michael Cook on Mercator, who outlines the two flaws Sandel sees in a market society:
The first is that it justifies inequality. Why should more affluent people get the best medical care, live in the safest neighbourhoods, or have the most political influence? He discusses this problem by examining the morality of queues. For instance, New York City puts on free outdoor Shakespeare performances in Central Park in the summertime. Demand is intense and the queues are long. Some people pay line standers over $100 to stand in the queues so that they don’t have to wait. In Washington lobbyists use the same system for congressional committee hearings. Time for money: isn’t this fair?
Not necessarily, says Sandel. The moral justification for markets is that they distribute goods efficiently to the people who want them most. But this isn’t always the case. Willingness to pay for a ticket may not indicate that the purchaser values the good more highly. In fact, a wealthy queue-jumper may not value Shakespeare nearly as much as people who wait for hours.
One of the great defects of a “market society” is that the affluent and the poor live in isolated silos. This is not good for democracy, says Sandel. A democratic society can only flourish when all citizens take responsibility for the common good. But unless people of different backgrounds mix and negotiate their differences, how can this happen?
Second, commercialisation can corrupt goods by treating them inappropriately. We all accept some limits: selling votes or trafficking babies is universally condemned. But the very fact that a price is set on a transaction changes people’s attitude towards it. Sometimes it demeans them.
He offers an interesting illustration. Switzerland needed a site to store radioactive waste. Economists studied the attitudes of residents of one small town to a proposed waste dump. A slim majority said they would support it, presumably out of a sense of civic duty. But when they were offered compensation for the site, support halved. “The intrusion of market norms crowded out their sense of civic duty,” observes Sandel. “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.”