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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars LIGHTWEIGHT, 30 Sep 2013
This review is from: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Hardcover)
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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.
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DAVID BRYSON
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