11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 9 February 2013
If I'm right in saying that true erudition lies in being able to make the complex both simple and thought-provoking, then Michael Sandel is on a short shortlist for the wisest man alive today.
The creep of market values to overlay or replace other ethical values is one of the most harmful aspects of the Western world today. Why are we in thrall to markets? Why are `profits', `efficiency' and `incentives' such central themes across so many organisations and so much social activity? And what do we lose as a result?
If you have read `Freakonomics' or books like it, then consider this your antidote. Please read it, then give it to a friend to read. We might just change the world. It's that good.
43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
I read this with great enthusiasm after seeing Sandel on tv last year and listening to him on the radio recently exploring some contemporary issues with audiences: what I admired was his ability to take the audience through a series of steps to elucidate central moral concerns. Here he takes a steady look at the commodification of much in western culture and subjects it to a scrupulous moral analysis, in many respects very much a print version of his broadcast work. The reviewer who hints at disappointment that there is nothing new here has a valid point: I doubt there really is in terms of conclusions. But what I really admire and am engaged by with Sandel's method is that it is not polemic but takes the reader through the logical processes by which one can arrive at judgements.
Most of us will probably 'know what we think' about many of the topics covered here - from bribes/incentives to populations to live healthily, to the access of advertisers to educational spaces, and many more and many more pressing and central topics besides. But what Sandel does is unravel the threads of logic and underpinning value judgements that many of us leapfrog over in our rush to judgement. At the very least we know better why certain arguments are more valid than others and occasionally have our assumptions challenged, or at least brought out into the open.
Perhaps best of all, the book is another demonstration that philosophy is not some abstruse academic pastime but a very relevant everyday process: if all the book does is remind us that we need to have a thought out underpinning to our expressed attitudes, then that is a worthy goal in itself.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
The topic that this book addresses could hardly be more important, and the author is Professor of Government at Harvard. There is every reason to have high expectations of the book, and indeed it is excellent in some ways, but it ought to have been a great deal better than it is.
I should also say that Professor Sandel is on my own side of the dialectical fence when it comes to taking a view on the legitimate role of markets, so when I criticise his handling of the question I do so not as an ideological opponent but as an ally and sympathiser. In particular one remark (p179) that deserves the status of poker-work motto is `making markets more efficient is no virtue in itself'. At various points Professor Sandel contrasts `purely economic' arguments, allegedly value-free and concerned only with economic self-interest, with what he calls `moral' objections to them. Broadly, I go along with his general outlook and many of the instances that he uses are fine by me, but he weakens our argument in two ways - first, I don't know what ivory tower we would have to visit to find value-free economic beliefs. The proponents of laissez-faire markets these days are nothing if not strident and hectoring. Secondly, Sandel's use of the term `moral' seems to me slack and hit-or-miss. There are two ways of applying the term. One categorises specific areas of human conduct, and the other is just a device for excluding alternatives, and it may have nothing to do with morality in the first sense. We could talk of a moral certainty, for example, by way of opposing it to a mathematical or actuarial certainty, and morality is not involved in this perfectly legitimate usage. Between the two there is a grey borderland, and I think Sandel should have been more careful of the instances he uses. He himself recognises the issue on p139 when talking about viaticals, i.e. forms of insurance that are tantamount to bets on when someone will die. `Maybe', he says rightly, `it's merely creepy, not morally objectionable.' However he lapses again on p145 when discussing some ghastly betting on the survival prospects of certain refugees, although I admit that he ducks out from under by attributing the view that this was `morally appalling' to `most people', as if forsooth he knew most people. Then on p153 he calls the objection `moral' as if there were no two ways about that.
What I regret particularly is that Sandel misses the really obvious case of morality-vs-economics, namely some socialist legislation. As I type this we have a live argument in Britain regarding a proposal by the opposition in parliament to freeze domestic energy prices to prevent more of our low-income citizenry freezing to death. The economic objections are perfectly intelligible - that holding down prices when costs are volatile could frighten off investment. True enough, but what that says to me is that a solution has to be found that will tackle the dilemma and not just assume that to avoid the one problem we have to put up with the other. Saving lives is a moral matter, and here we have genuine morality confronted with rational economics. What is also particularly unsatisfactory to me is the Professor's frequent tendency to assume that his standards of acceptability, whether we call them standards of morality or just of taste or something in between, are universally shared, or more or less. Even worse is the plonking pronunciamento at the end of chapter 3 that communitarian impulses are `more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.' So there. Repeat that after me. I happen to share Sandel's view here, but he and I are not everyone nor even most people, and the `moral' case can't just get a pass like this.
What I would have liked from the author is a view, preferably argued so far as that is possible but at minimum clearly stated, on how standards of behaviour - under whatever banner whether as moral or not - relate to rationality. My own view is that they are not matters of the intellect at all. I simply do not believe that they can be explained in terms of some calculus of advantage generally, least of all financial advantage. Tell that to the suicide bombers or to religious enthusiasts generally. It is always available to us, of course, to rationalise our impulses as some kind of profit-and-loss account (whether financial or in terms of some other benefit) but all that seems a contrived and ludicrous oversimplification to me, invoked to buttress what is not, at bottom, a rational case.
If hypothetically `pure' economics and `moral' considerations don't belong on the same page, it would have been better not to put them on the same page. Sandel does not seem very impressed with this abstract view of economics, but I would have liked him to be clearer. Does he agree with Paul Mason, for instance, that there is no such thing as this? However suppose for the moment that there is such an animal as purely rational economics, Sandel could have pointed out the intellect's basic limitations that David Hume saw in the 18th century, and he could have attacked the silly little simplifications so beloved of the marketeers. For one thing, `maximised' good/happiness/utility are meaningless abstractions impossible to define or even identify in practice.
If Sandel really wants to influence the debate he should have tried harder to control its vocabulary. Alas, professors are professors, and sadly one of his Harvard colleagues is quoted (out of context so perhaps giving an unjust impression) on p130 as asking whether the desperately needy should be denied the take-it-or-leave-it `choice' of starvation earnings or nothing. An economic reply could be that quality matters more than choice. A `moral' response might be that this is odious smugness from someone comfortably off.
The long catalogue of examples suggests a student dissertation, with too much about baseball. All a pity.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
In the U.S. Congress, some public can listen to the debate, but for the days you will have to wait your turn. The solution to that is offered by the company through which you rent a person who would stand in line for you. If you're a lobbyist and you need to listen very important discussion time of some homeless will be helpful who would thereby earn his $ 50 Something innocuous like standing in queue, as the most experienced, is particularly worrying in China where you stand in line for days or you have to pay the priority. At the hospital.
The issue of standing in the queue is the subject of the first chapter of the book written by most famous Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. After the hugely successful 'Justice' Sandel explores and discusses the moral limits of markets. In the introduction he is defending against possible sentence that the book criticizes market economy: "The difference of the market economy is the following - the market economy is a good tool to increase productivity, but market society is a way of life in which the market value pervades all aspects of human endeavor." The era of market triumphalism ended, and since then things have started in the wrong direction; from the beginning of the crisis the public, instead to banks and the stock exchange speculators, turned anger to the government, to the politicians.
Why the issue of standing in queue is worrying? Economists, however, say that standing in queues is inefficient waste of time, shows that the offer did not meet the demand as a basic rule of economics. Pay someone to stand in line for you will improve efficiency by making people put a price on their time. But is it moral to look at it in this way, dividing people into those who can afford it and the other ones?
Sandel proposes opening some moral issues through political and public debate: "The problem is not that there is too much moralizing in politics, but not enough. Too little the issues to which people care about are being discussed."
There are two main reasons for concern - the first is inequality because it is more difficult to be poor with every additional thing which can be bought. If the inequality would consist only in the fact some can buy expensive yachts, while others do not, the difference in income and total wealth would not have been as important as today. But actually everything is for sale, right?
Another reason for concern is corruption. The introduction of market choice in areas where civic values dominate have degrading and corrosive effects on society as a whole. We "pollute" the things that should be morally important. You can buy citizenship to live in America, pay a surrogate mother in India for $8,000 or hunt protected species of animals. If, however, you need to make money because the previous things you cannot afford, you can tattoo advertisement on your head for $10,000 or fight in a private unit in Afghanistan for $1,000 per day.
If such things are really important, and it is assumed that they are why is there an apparent lack of discourse? Sandel says the reason is very simple, economists do not think in such (moral) way. If there is someone who is willing to pay for a kidney, and someone who consciously and at own risk wants to sell, then the economist would only ask - how much?
This is just a part of living and sometimes shocking examples we are used to read in the previous Sandel works, and in this work they are not absent as well. The author methodically corroborates his thesis with simple data to get closer to the readers who are not necessarily interested in the field of economics or philosophy. Intelligently he shows why it's important to think about the moral limits of markets. The fact is that the market may lead to outcomes that improve the well-being is irrelevant where it dominates over certain civic values which are very important to each of us.
It is important to open the debates and ask questions about the problems which are changing the roots of our society. This book, written by a top political philosopher of our time, is a great start.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2014
Michael Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. In this remarkable book, he argues against the commercialisation of society. "These uses of markets to allocate 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."
He distinguishes two kinds of arguments against markets - the fairness argument and the corruption argument. "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 bargaining positions. It offers no basis for objecting to the commodification of goods (whether sex or kidneys or college admissions) in a society whose background conditions are fair.
He continues, "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."
He concludes, "The crowding-out phenomenon has big implications for economics. It calls into question the use of market mechanisms and market reasoning in many aspects of social life, including financial incentives to motivate performance in education, health care, the workplace, voluntary associations, civic life, and other settings in which intrinsic motivations or moral commitments matter."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"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?"
This is a short (c.200 pages) but timely and important book which argues that while market economies may distribute goods and services in an efficient way, the increasing commodotisation of everything from education to citizenship exposes the limits, in moral terms, of marketisation.
Written with clarity, breadth and a restrained passion, Sandel sets out the issues and offers many examples of how the principles of classical economics become twisted and sometimes produce counter-intuitive results when applied to civil and moral `goods'.
This is especially good when responding to economists who believe that human altruism and `goodness' are limited virtues which get depleted with use, and that we should pay financial incentives rather than relying on voluntary goodwill for certain services and/or `goods' e.g. blood donations. Like Sandel, I think the opposite, that altruism and social responsibility are self-renewing and set up a virtuous circle - the more we practice them, the better we feel and so the more we want to do. His comparison between the UK's NHS voluntary blood donation scheme and the less successful system in the US which pays people to donate is a good example of how creating a financial market in blood yields a poorer quality product and stops volunteers from donating, thus reducing the amount of altruism and social responsibility in the community.
Sadly, I suspect this is a book which will be read by people already troubled by the commoditisation of everything which has emerged in the last 30 or so years (Sandel dates this `market triumphalism' to the Thatcher/Reagan years though, to be fair, Labour and Democrat governments have done little to intervene) so, to some extent, he's likely to be preaching to the converted.
All the same this is an impassioned, lucid and important book - highly recommended.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 13 November 2012
Money can't buy friendship or love, but it can buy an increasing number of things - including bought apologies in some cultures. Sandel is unhappy about this development - seems always to have been unhappy about this development - and this book tells us why. Essentially, the move of buying things for money into new areas can represent bribery of people not in a position to make a reasoned choice and can also devalue the goods bought and sold. (So charging for late collection from an Israeli nursery did not lead to more timely pickups, but had the reverse impact - as people thought they were just paying for an extra service and not turning up on time for moral reasons, to release the nursery staff).
The book covers in turn paying to jump queues (and secondary markets in ticketing of all kinds, including tickets for the Pope as well as Bruce Springsteen) and paying people to stand in line for you (for tickets to congressional hearings and the like), then incentives (not to procreate, not to pollute, to permit the killing of limited numbers of endangered rhinos or seals), then markets crowding out morals (bought apologies, late collections, the case against gifts - just exchange money, it's much more utilitarian - skyboxes to watch ballgames) , markets in life and death (betting on the lives of others, taking on their life insurance and so on), and finally 'naming rights' (charging for autographs, putting billboards on bodies or nature trails and so on).
Sandel's central thesis - that some of these issues are really about the good life for man, rather than utilitarian economics - is surely proven by the end of the book. (Though note Sandel has almost nothing to say about the good life as such...) And there's interesting anecdotal material on every page (as per the above summary) to keep you interested and alert as a reader. Sometimes, though, I find I am in fact a utilitarian - and that this seems the best route to the good life for humanity. I can't really see what's wrong with pollution permits as a public policy, for instance - of course it would be nice if everyone restrained their own behaviour, but if there's a more efficient way to achieve a good which is a good for the planet, not for the individual, then this is pretty clearly the way to go...But it's a merit of the book that it's always making you think....
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
In this book Michael Sandel explores the belief that money can buy everything. He asks us to confront our acceptance, and also our revulsion, at the control that money and business interests have on our way of life.
Sandel takes the reader through a brief history of the insurance business, which began as a system to protect our expensive goods, allowing us to replace our dwelling, should the house burn down; or gain compensation should our ship sink, rather than come in. If you, like me, are ignorant enough to think that this is where the business is today, you are in for a rude surprise: old people are being paid to take out insurance policies, which are taken over by companies who pay the premiums, in the hope that the insured person dies quickly, giving them a decent profit. The banking system has even bought in to this concept and, along with sub prime mortgages, one can buy shares in the death industry.
Sandel also investigates the changing policies of the advertising industry. A few years ago advertisements would appear on television, in the press and occasional street posters. Nowadays, even in conservative Britain, adverts pop up in all sorts unlikely places and this book shows where we are likely to be in the future.
My football team already plays at the King Power Stadium, which had been known as the Walkers Stadium, until more money was offered for the naming rights. Apparently, a police car, in the metropolis, apprehends miscreants under the sponsorship of Harrods and many town centres have an over-sized television in their square, ostensibly to show major events but in reality, to put a string of banal advertisements in front of the general public. America, so often mocked from this side of the Atlantic for being more extreme, but in reality, simply ahead of we Brits, has taken advertising to another level: schools, in some states, are given televisions and other equipment with the proviso that all the pupils watch a fifteen minute news programme each day: needless to say, the recording is peppered with adverts, probably for the soft drinks company that has purchased exclusive rights to supply the school tuck shop. Mr Sandel even cites the case of one lady, a single mother, who sold her forehead as an advertising site to provide sustenance for her child. At the age of thirty, she was tattooed with an advertising slogan.
Some of the examples, in this book, I found to be acceptable, some deeply shocking but, Michael Sandel keeps a very tight control upon his own feelings. Reading the book, one does get some idea of his personnel opinions but, even in the most extreme cases, he does not criticise, but simply reports. It would be easy for a work such as this, to slip into the, 'Things are terrible now, unlike the good old days' attitude: Sandel does not. He does his readership the honour of assuming that, given the facts, they are capable of making up their own minds. This is a book that everybody should read. The more people that are aware of the direction of travel, the better can be our control of the type of society that 'Big Business' builds and, let us be honest, it is business, not politicians, that will shape the twenty first century.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I know it's an odd admission but when I chose this book I wasn't sure of my motivation. Like a number of my colleagues and friends I have become unsettled with the way our society has become so focused with the cost of everything, from work to play we seem to be obsessed with gaining a monetary advantage with any activity.
Having heard the approach Sandel took to moral issues on the radio recently I found his approach to these issues interesting and felt his writing would assist me in understand my own confused thoughts on the subject. I wanted to be able to look at the motivations of my contemporaries with new understanding of just how we have become obsessed with everything BUT the morality of our actions.
In this the book and his approach was really beneficial in that it made me take logical steps to review the subject and exposed my concerns with the current state of our society and gating an understanding of how I have come to this place I am so uncomfortable with.
I enjoyed Sandels approach and the book, it gave me so much ore that the authors position by making me move through my own motivations, I recommend this book and hope you find it as enlightening as I did.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 3 June 2014
According to the critics, Michael Sandel is a genius philosopher. He may be that, but this book does not really make the earth move.
When it comes to providing endless examples of how markets have overstepped the mark in our daily lives, this book knows no equal. It is full to the brim with tasteless examples that make you want to scream and kick someone. Nowhere is this intrusion worse than in the US (where else?) and it is a wonder there has not been a more passionate fight back against this. Americans seem to be able to put up with this, as they put up with the useless Congress, the awful Supreme Court, shootings, etc.
Having detailed all this horror, Sandel can only apply the meekest of censures. He seems lukewarm about everything. Like he doesn't have the heart for a scrap. The punchline is -'Money can buy just about anything, and it's a shame.'This 'wet noodle' solution reminds me of the EU's response to Russia's actions in the Ukraine. No difference to Mr. Putin, and none will be made to the 'sell out culture' of branded skulls and foreheads.
Thanks for the details, but where is the fire?