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Michael J. Sandel
Michael J. Sandel

book review

Markets, money and morals Add to ...

  • Title What Money Can’t Buy
  • Author Michael J. Sandel
  • Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Pages 244
  • Price $27

From January to April, 1984, I attended a seminar at McGill University on the nature of distributive justice led by one of the world’s most eminent political philosophers, Charles Taylor. The great man deserved better.

At any rate, one of the texts under discussion was by a former grad student of Taylor’s – Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, which the then-Harvard professor wrote in his late 20s. I’ve followed his work ever since.

Sandel is among the leading public intellectuals of the age. He writes clearly and concisely in prose that neither oversimplifies nor obfuscates. He appears on the BBC as a commentator and documentarian. Think pre-Grit Michael Ignatieff without all the bafflegab and hair.

Now arrives What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. At a moment when – thanks to the $2-billion (and counting) trading losses reported at JPMorgan Chase – we are reminded of the massive, and some might suggest disproportionate, influence that finance wields in the economy, Sandel’s latest is a timely read.

His arguments regarding the fundamental injustices of contemporary capitalism dovetail with the likes of Matt Taibbi’s critique of Goldman Sachs (Griftopia) and documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson’s critique of government “regulators” and economic academe (Inside Job).

But Sandel’s critique is broader in its ambit and subtler in its argumentation. His is a philosophical admonishment, warning that the unfettered flow of money and the increasing want of same is rooted in a fundamental conceptual confusion.

In an effort to promulgate economics as a value-free science independent of moral and political philosophy, practitioners and advocates seek to “maximize the satisfaction of preferences regardless of their moral worth.” This, Sandel argues, is a truly awful idea and leads to many of the distortions we see around us every day, if only we know how and where to look.

“When market reasoning is concerned with material goods such as cars, toasters and flat-screen televisions, this objection doesn’t loom large … but when economic reasoning is applied to sex, procreation, child rearing, education, health, criminal punishment, immigration policy and environmental protection, it’s less plausible to assume that everyone’s preferences are equally worthwhile.”

Through this conceptual lens, Sandel reduces to near absurdity a lot of what passes for market-oriented policy-making. Take, for instance, the market in so-called offsets, i.e. “buying the right to pollute from others (or paying for programs that enable other countries to pollute less).” Sandel points out the stark contradiction implied by this ostensibly benign arrangement. “Economists often assume that solving global warming is simply a matter of designing the right incentive structure and getting countries to sign on. But this misses a crucial point: Norms matter. Whatever its efficiency, a global market in the right to pollute may make it harder to cultivate the habits of restraint and shared sacrifice that a responsible environmental ethic requires.”

Throughout the book, Sandel illustrates his argument with case after similar case of “the expansion of markets and market values into spheres of life where they don’t belong.” Perhaps the most disturbing of these turns on a Canadian example. In the 1990s, the Inuit approached the government with a proposal aimed at amending a 1928 ban on walrus hunting with the exception of Inuit subsistence hunters. Why not allow the Inuit to sell the right to kill some of their walrus quota to big game hunters? Hunters pay up to $6,500 for the privilege of what New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers characterized as taking “a long boat ride to shoot a very large bean bag chair.”

In other words, there’s no “sport” involved. “So why shoot a walrus?” Sandel asks. “Apparently to fulfill the goal of killing one specimen of every creature on lists provided by hunting clubs … the Arctic grand slam (caribou, musk ox, polar bear and walrus). … From the standpoint of market reasoning, there’s much to be said for allowing the Inuit to sell their right to shoot a certain number of walruses. The Inuit gain a new source of income and the ‘list hunters’ gain a chance to complete their rosters.”

And yet, he argues “market reasoning” utterly fails to address the vile nose-on-your-face implications of this despicable practice. Besides aiding in the shooting of an utterly defenseless mammal at close range, “for the Inuit to sell outsiders the right to kill their allotted walruses corrupts the meaning and purpose of the exemption. … It’s one thing to honour the Inuit way of life … it’s quite another to convert that … into a cash concession in killing on the side.”

Besides reminding Canadians that sanctimony is no substitute for clear moral thinking, Sandel asks the crucial question of our time: “Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”

We dismiss these queries as merely rhetorical at our peril.


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