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.
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.
I didn't expect a book on economics to grab my interest. However, this little gem by Michael Sandel hooked me from the beginning. MS writes knowledgeably about the effect of the market on the everyday morals that we all take for granted - well, I certainly did, until I read this book! Informative and quietly witty, the author addresses such basic yet important questions as: Should we let company sponsorship drive the true fan away from the ball park? Would you let your house, car or even forehead be festooned (or in the latter case, tattooed) with advertising? Or: Does paying students to do their schoolwork result in better grades? Sandel argues his case with aplomb, seeing both sides of the morals v. markets issue whilst gently persuading us it's not a good thing. he also casually threw in a few facts that really made my jaw drop. For example, in certain prisons in the USA, it's possible for the more genteel (aka: wealthy) prisoner to be upgraded to a better cell. If this particular example doesn't illustrate the rapidly widening gulf between America's rich and poor, nothing does! If I have one criticism, it is that the book is mostly US centric, but it's merely a small quibble. I would also have liked to have seen more questions asked of the way the large pharmaceutical companies run health care on a worldwide basis, but maybe this could be the basis of another book? Anyway, if youhave an interest in economics or like books that make you think, read this. Recommended!
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.
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.
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....
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."
on 26 December 2013
According to Michael Sandel, the "most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed" but the expansion of market values into spheres of life where they don't belong. In this well-argued and important book, he draws our attention to the moral limits of markets, and asks the simple question: Are there some things money should not buy? That this question needs asking points up how far markets, and market values, have come to govern our lives.
At the end of the cold war, "markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, understandably so." Sandel admires market capitalism as the mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods that has proved most "successful at generating affluence and prosperity." However, he takes issue with the ideological assumption that markets are always the best way of getting goods to those who value them most highly. Although a line of Russian housewives queuing for bread came to epitomize the failure of centralized planning, queues may sometimes work better than markets in maximizing the enjoyment of certain goods. Sandel would probably agree that a free market is the best way of getting bread to consumers, but in other situations queues may do a better job. In any given case, it's "an empirical question, not a matter that can be resolved in advance by abstract economic reasoning."
Markets now "allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods". It's a long list, and perhaps more surprising to British than to American readers. Out-and-out free marketers might be celebrating the fact that we "live at a time when when almost everything can be bought and sold" but the rest of us will be uneasy. Sandel offers two reasons why we should be worried.
First, the more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters. Second, putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. Inequality increases as more good things are bought and sold: there is not just the usual inequality between rich and poor, now there is a greater range of goods out of reach of the poor. More difficult to grasp, perhaps because we are already so far gone down the market route, is the idea that markets corrupt, because they not only allocate goods, "they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged."
One of the examples Sandel gives is of kids at an underachieving Dallas school being paid for each book they read. "Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction." In their examination of how capitalism enlarges insatiability by increasingly "monetizing" the economy (How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life), the Skidelskys contrast leisure with work, where their sense of leisure is distinguished by an absence of external compulsion. All three authors are concerned with the role of money and markets in achieving - or scuppering - the good life. For Sandel in particular, how we decide what money should, and should not, be able to buy is the key moral question. To this end, we must "decide what values should govern the various domains of social and civic life." Sandel succeeds in this book by enabling us to think this issue through, and by keeping it clearly in view without getting bogged in jargon or abstruse argument.
The phenomenon of "skyboxification" - where luxury boxes segregate rich and poor in modern sports arenas - is for Sandel the epitome of the way in which "commercialism erodes commonality." After a long period when "ballparks were places where corporate executives sat side by side with blue-collar workers" it seems we're returning to an earlier epoch, when senators kept themselves apart from the plebs in the Roman theatre (one difference being that, instead of being high above the field of play, the senators of ancient Rome were nearest the action).
Sandel acknowledges that commercialism does not destroy everything it touches. There were naysayers when Blues musicians plugged in their guitars: it was like putting a dollar sign on it, but who would begrudge John Lee Hooker from earning a living? A clearer example of price driving out value is the way the rich avoid queuing for free tickets for Shakespeare in the Park. Those who can afford to employ a line-standing company are not always those who will most highly value the experience. (Shakespeare himself illustrated opposing attitudes to market values in The Merchant of Venice, in which Antonio demands of Shylock: when did friendship take "A breed for barren metal of his friend?" Shylock later admits: "To buy his favour, I extend this friendship".)
When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, "we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities". However, not all goods are properly valued in this way. The most obvious example, at least to the modern reader, is human beings: slavery was appalling "because it treated human beings as commodities, to be bought and sold at auction." Today, no country could claim to be civilized if it condoned human trafficking, and this example shows most clearly that, in the end, "the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together." Democracy may not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. Insofar as markets undermine commonality and diminish the public character of our common world, they undermine democracy. In Sandel's home country, this would be the very definition of an unAmerican activity.
on 4 April 2014
'What Money Can't Buy' by M. Sandel is a fantastic achievement. The author succeeds admirably in articulating, with remarkable clarity and insight, the intuitive unease many of us share against the increasing marketization of society. Many aspects of human and social endeavor that have ordinarily been sustained by non-market norms are increasingly been governed by market and market-oriented forces. This transition or trend raises important moral and political questions about the sort of society we want to live in. Contrary to the assertions of most economists', Sandel argues that markets are not inert and that they have the potential and capacity to fundamentally affect the nature of the goods under transaction. More specifically he argues that the corrosive effect of markets manifest in their ability, at times, to displace non-market norms that are valuable and central to public and individual flourishing. The increasing hold that markets seem to exercise over our personal and public lives has the potential, Sandel argues, of exacerbating existing levels of inequality and of engendering corruption and degradation. <br/><br/>The book comes replete with numerous well-chosen real-life examples that help to illuminate the particular concern being expressed. More generally, the book is well-argued, persuasive and remarkably engaging. Sandel is a gifted thinker and in this book he does a tremendous job of communicating otherwise complex philosophical ideas in easily digestible language. A wonderful accomplishment.
on 23 June 2012
Having found Sandel's book "Justice" educational and thought provoking, I was disappointed by this one. I had hoped for an insightful discussion of arguments for and against the creeping commodification of modern life. Instead there is a long, and at times repetitive and dull, list of examples of areas where markets have encroached. Most of these are not surprising for anyone who lives in a modern democracy.
He describes the vague feelings of unease that many of us do have, but does little to explain them other than citing unfairness, and the damage to and replacement of non-market values. He offers no suggestions as to how a society or an individual could raise cash in other ways, or live without the need for that extra cash.
Selling kidneys can seem repugnant, but if a man sells his kidney so that he can pay for life saving heart surgery for his daughter, it is hard to morally condemn him. Better to condemn (and try to change) the world where poverty can leave a man with no other options.
What about health care? Some countries - Norway, Holland, and Canada I think - provide universal free health care and do not allow a parallel private health system. Disparities in income may well affect one's chance of becoming ill, but at least won't affect the standard of treatment one receives. Is this an area that should be free of markets? Sandel does not comment.
I grew up in Australia and went to a state primary school, and then a private secondary school. That school was run by a board of trustees and was not a profit making business. I was surprised to find in Kenya that private schools were businesses. it seemed outrageous that someone could profit from a basic right to education. Now I am used to it, and pay up, because unfortunately I know I will only get what I pay for.
There are no examples from the developing world. In countries like Kenya, social services and free education and health care are rudimentary. There is a huge gap between poor and rich and this inequality is exacerbated by the fact that there are high standard private, and thus market driven, schools and hospitals. In fact there is little incentive for local councils or the government to provide infrastructure and services, because the private sector provides a parallel service in almost every area - water, sanitation, security, power, telephones, education - and many politicians are on the boards of these companies. Roads are a stumbling block, no transit lanes to sell, so overcoming traffic is an area businessmen must be eyeing. Helicopters and gyrocopter taxis perhaps?
I'll keep looking for a more insightful book. I might try Diana Coyle's 'The Economics of Enough'.