What money can’t and shouldn’t buy [a book review]

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of The Markets

By Michael J. Sandel

Paper back, Open Market edition, 244 pages

Published April 2012 by Allen Lane

Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars? Auctioning admission to elite universities? Selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes on one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don’t belong? What are the moral limits of markets?In recent decades, market values have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of life—medicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations. Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. Is this where we want to be?In his New York Times bestseller Justice, Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating, with clarity and verve, the hard moral questions we confront in our everyday lives. Now, in What Money Can’t Buy, he provokes an essential discussion that we, in our market-driven age, need to have: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society—and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets don’t honor and that money can’t buy?

In this market-driven age with the underlying belief of “The Invisible Hand” – market as the effective instrument to achieve public good, often we are struck with awe by how economists and market practitioners brilliantly think of ways to allocate goods in more efficient manners, finding new avenues to generate more revenue in ways that were unthinkable before. We tinkered with the idea of stationing economists or businessmen in our government to make everything more efficient, propagate development and prosperity for our country.

If belief in market is the ‘yin’, this book aims to be its ‘yang’. Through this book, the author wants to encourage us to think how far we market to permeate our society and aspects of public good that are at stake: “what is the proper role of markets in a democratic society, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”

What I like about the most about this book is the author makes his point without being preachy using layman lingo that reaches general audience (read: people who are not really familiar with philosophy).

He asks us to experiment by facing our moral conviction with jaw-dropping real-life market practice examples e.g. betting on strangers’ lives as demonstrated in janitors insurance practice (some corporates buy insurance policies on the lives of their workers and collect the death benefits when the employees die), schools pay students for each book they read to encourage reading, etc. In each case, Sandel poses readers with what “corruption” argument. First he lays down the civic goods and moral values at stake and what is the role of those civic goods and moral values. Then he argues how market practices can change and corrupt the meaning of honoured social practices including how we value ourselves and people around us in our society and how we view what we consider as a morally good thing to do (e.g. altruism, patriotism) by directing our thoughts to run “cost-benefit analysis” for everything.

Granted,  his arguments are sometimes loose and pose debatable aspects and this book leaves us with more questions than answers. However I think that is the whole point:  to provoke us to be and stay critical and question  in seeing how markets or commerce can “change the characters of goods they touch” that it is important to always have (public) discussions to deliberate “the meaning and purpose of goods” along with “the values that should govern them” in order to decide where the markets serve the public good – “where the markets belong” and where they corrupt the public good – “where they don’t”.

Here’s Amazon’s author interview with Michael Sandel explaining the premise of his book “What Money Can’t Buy”.”

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