Book Review – “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” by Michael J. Sandel

Quah Say Jye, B.A. Candidate, National University of Singapore

Childcare centres in Israel were once faced with a problem. Parents were consistently arriving late to pick up their children, therefore teachers had to stay back with the children till they arrived and thus extend their work hours. The centres responded by imposing a fine for late pickups. The logic behind this seems relatively straightforward. By imposing a price on the frowned upon behaviour, the parents would be less incentivised to arrive late in order to avoid having to pay a fine. This leads to less late coming, and the teachers can happily leave on time. In the unlikely event the parents still arrive late, the teachers that have to stay back would be monetarily compensated.

The results however, did not match expectations. The parents did not respond to monetary incentives as expected and late comings increased instead. Introducing a price for late coming changed prevailing norms, as parents who were late no longer felt guilty for imposing an inconvenience on the teachers but treated the late pickup as a service that came at a monetary price. In a sentence, “they treated the fine as if it were a fee” (95), a fee not having moral content that a fine is supposed to entail.

Examples such as these fill Harvard Professor Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, arguably his most accessible book to date. The target audience of this book does not seem to be fellow academic philosophers or researchers, but anyone with a general interest in public life, morality and politics.

Sandel’s central question is clear: are there things that money can buy, but shouldn’t? Sandel contends that the question has eluded public debate, and the United States (and other societies) has been transforming from a market economy to a market society, where money has been encroaching into areas of public life where it simply should not, and has led to an increasingly corrupting influence on private life. Sandel’s argument goes beyond showing that placing a price on some things do not lead to the desired effects, as the childcare centre example shows, but that money encroaching where it should is both unfair and has a corrupting effect (110).

Fairness Argument

His fairness argument holds that because of unequal starting positions of power, monetary transactions are not always fair. Due to unfair bargaining conditions, transactions are not truly voluntary or free as parties that are under desperate conditions are forced to make certain decisions, or that parties that are more powerful can gain greater opportunities. For example, Sandel notes the peculiar cases of what happens when money invades public hearings on proposed legislation in the United States Congress or oral arguments in important constitutional cases in the Supreme Court (22-23). Seats for both events are made available to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, with the limited capacity in both venues leading to queues over a day long. This is meant to be a fair system allowing whoever is most interested and willing to spend their time queueing to enter the venue. Citizens are therefore allowed equal opportunities to prove their willingness to access these venues which form the backbone of the United States politics.

However, bizarre line-standing companies have emerged, offering to recruiting people, who turn out to be the most economically vulnerable like the homeless, to queue on a client’s behalf for a fee. Corporate lobbyists, who represent the interests of the wealthiest classes of American society, purchase this service for up to over a $1000 per queuer. This changes the system, as competition is no longer based on an equal opportunity for any citizen who is willing to spend time, but in terms of financial muscle. The likely outcome is that public events like these are not attended by those who are most willing to contribute to public life, but those that are able to afford these services. Access to direct contact with lawmakers and Congress is dependent on financial privilege, meaning that chances to access political knowledge are no longer equal amongst the populace, a damaging consequence for any democratic society.

Corruption Argument

Sandel’s corruption argument raises questions over the norms or attitudes that market relations or monetary incentives might erode. Unlike the fairness argument, this argument suggests that even when not against a background of significant inequality in wealth and power, certain things are still off-limits and should not be bought. The focus is on the character of the service or good that is bought or sold.

For example, Sandel discusses the case of how the act of gifting has become commodified, with the trend towards gift certificates. From 1998 to 2010, the yearly sales of gift cards increased almost 8 times to take up over $80 billion in exchange (104). Traditional approaches to gifting symbolises the festive season, and the receiver is left impressed by the choice of gift and effort expanded in making that choice. Instead, gift-giving today takes on a form of commercial exchange, and is one step away from “simply…thrusting wads of dollar bills at each other”. By subjecting gift-giving to market norms and monetary exchange, Sandel argues that we have corrupted the act of giving and have eroded previously held norms. With this, Sandal asks us to ponder over the character of the service or good itself, which in the case of gifting is love, and what the appropriate norms of governing them should be. Sandel argues that this essentially commodifies our relationships, and corrupts their meaning by making them monetary transactions rather than acts of love and giving.

Both arguments are powerful rejections of market logic, or that everything should have a price and can be bought. The fairness argument is particularly cogent given the background context of soaring levels of inequality we see around the world today, particularly in the United States. The corruption argument is more far-reaching and is applicable in contexts without high levels of inequality, and perhaps can be very appropriately applied to the debates surrounding climate change. While Sandel does touch briefly upon the application of his arguments to climate change, his corruption argument can be further used to push back on anthropocentric arguments in environmental ethics. These arguments take the environment to be instrumental or solely for the benefit of human beings. If we apply Sandel’s argument, we can push back upon these arguments, stating that they corrupt and degrade our (meaning human beings) relationship to nature. This is just one example of the usefulness of these arguments, as they can be applied in a variety of situations.

Furthermore, if we probe deeper into these arguments and the philosophical tradition from which Sandel springs from, there are even deeper insights to be gained. These concern communitarian and the link to Eastern philosophy.

Communitarian and Eastern Philosophy

Sandel is a well-known critic of liberalism, the philosophical tradition that broadly advocates human rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and takes the individual to be object of moral value. It is mostly seen to be realised in liberal democracies like the United States, and within the framework of the socio-economic system of capitalism. Sandel is known for challenging the conception of the individual that liberalism takes, seeing liberalism as assuming an ‘unencumbered self’, where all moral values are defined by the individual himself as opposed to being prior to this self. For Sandel, the individual is born embedded in society, and therefore after a process of self-reflection discovers and takes at least some of the values of the community he is born into. This means that values are prior to the self, instead of the liberal conception of being fully determined by the individual himself without regard to his community.

This critique forms the background of Sandel’s critique of what he calls “market societies”, where the ‘good’ is defined individually by a neutral market system and by voluntary exchange. This ‘neutral’, formal system has no embedded values, and allows various unencumbered selves to make voluntary transactions amongst each other without regard for underlying norms or community values. When Sandel speaks of markets for organs or love, it is this neutral market system, underpinned by the philosophy of liberalism, that he is referring to and wants us to reconsider.

Liberalism, which puts the individual at the heart of its philosophy, stands in contrast with broadly Asian philosophies like Confucianism, which like Sandel takes the individual to be a part of a community. These philosophies suggest that the idea that one can divorce the individual from society is simply an unhelpful fiction. This has been pointed out in an article in this magazine, where  the “rabid individualizing seen in Western philosophy, especially political philosophy, is nowhere to be found” in Eastern philosophy, and that the “most important aspect is that large tendencies of Eastern thought realized early on that within a society there is no such thing as “individual as such”.

Given that liberalism takes on an almost hegemonic status in Western societies, and has greatly penetrated many parts of the rest of the world, Sandel’s communitarianism offers a much needed philosophical alternative. Combatting the “rabid individualizing” tendencies of liberalism has important ramifications for our everyday lives. We start to see ourselves not as disparate individuals, choosing or selecting our own values or desires and acting for ourselves, but instead as part of a community and necessarily adopting the values of the community and acting in service of the community-at-large. This means that communal rather than individual considerations factor more greatly into our everyday decisions. For example, perhaps when we think about tax policies, we would be less concerned with the personal impacts, then the social redistribution that results from the policy.

This makes Sandel’s popularity in East Asia unsurprising, where liberalism is by no means a fringe doctrine but has not dominated the landscape the way it has in the West. According to one book, he spoke to fully packed outdoor stadiums in Seoul and received a reception normally reserved for Hollywood movie stars in China. Again referring back to the article, it is incorrect to say that Western thought at large has the individual at the root of its philosophy, when Western figures like Sandel, drawing from the Aristotelian tradition, places such a great emphasis on the role of the community. His work is a reminder that Western philosophy is more than liberalism, a point often forgotten given liberalism’s hegemonic status in the contemporary Western philosophical canon. Sandel therefore represents a ‘Western’ philosopher that perhaps those in Asian societies can find affinity with, finding that his ideas are not that different from the socio-cultural fabric that many of us were brought up on. For readers already familiar with Sandel’s work or Chinese political philosophy, the book “Encountering China”, which features various scholars of Chinese philosophy engaging with Sandel’s work, might be a more useful starting point. While Sandel’s more challenging books might be more academically rigorous and nuanced, readers looking for a more accessible gateway into the philosophy of communitarianism and a reminder of our Asian roots via a critique of liberalism should look at ‘The Moral Limits of Markets’ as a useful starting point.


About the author:

Say Jye is an NUS political science undergraduate who specialises in political theory, being especially interested in issues surrounding liberalism, climate change, and Singaporean politics. He plays the bass in his spare time. He thinks philosophy is not just cool, but important.


References can be requested at cogitocollective@gmail.com

Featured image: In a 1786 James Gillray caricature, the plentiful money bags handed to King George III are contrasted with the beggar whose legs and arms were amputated, in the left corner. Wikipedia


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