What Money Can't Buy: Michael Sandel On Market Moralism Run Amok

Harvard’s most popular professor. ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ by Michael J. Sandel. 256p. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $17.24

Would you pay your kid to read a book? Do you think crack addicts should be paid to get sterilized? Are skyboxes bad for America? Michael Sandel thinks we need to ask these kinds of questions.

Sandel is probably the world's most relevant living philosopher, thanks to the hugely popular course he teaches at Harvard, "Justice," which was broadcast on PBS and the BBC. His 2009 book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? topped sales charts here and elsewhere; he's a sought-after speaker all over the world.

The popularity of his "Justice" course says Sandel, 59, has to do with its questions, not him. It's true that he cuts an unprepossessing figure: a slight, trim man who wears a suit and tie when he teaches. Yet he's a quick and creative thinker—as president of his high-school class in California, he got then-governor Ronald Reagan to address the school by sending him a six-pound bag of jelly beans, Reagan's favorite candy.

In a small irony, Sandel's jelly-bean gesture is a form of incentive, one of the things he challenges in his new book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The book takes on what Sandel calls the "imperialism" of economic ideas. He thinks we're in thrall to markets and use them to answer questions that markets aren't meant to answer. "We are in the grip of a way of looking at the world and social life and even personal relations that is dominated by economic ways of thinking. That's an impoverished way of looking at the world," he says.

One would expect Wall Street to figure prominently in this book, but What Money Can't Buy says almost nothing about it. Instead, he challenges all of us to look at how we've allowed markets to pervade our public life. He argues that the spread of market philosophy has created what he calls "a consumerist idea of freedom," in which we think our highest freedom is what we consume. Our obsession with consumption limits our freedom to engage in a full civic life.

In advancing this argument, Sandel is going toe-to-toe not only with economists, the now-disgraced intellectual darlings of the last two decades, but also the whole current of American life. But Sandel, while liberal, is no radical socialist. He applauds markets for driving economic prosperity around the world and says in earnest, "some of my best friends are imperial economists." But he still thinks markets shouldn't replace our moral judgment.

If his talk of -morals scandalizes liberals, conservatives will squirm at his assault on their easy acceptance of markets. He argues that economic thinking, applied outside of its traditional realms, corrodes and displaces human values.

To make his argument Sandel stays focused on the everyday; he's a practical philosopher. He asks what it says about us that we employed more mercenaries than U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan? What about the idea that we should sell immigration rights? Does that cheapen the idea of citizenship?

But his greatest concern is the "skyboxification" of American society. Take the renovation of the University of Michigan Stadium. He recounts the debate over whether it should add skyboxes. Those who argued against them said attending a sporting event is a form of civic -engagement—everyone, rich or poor, sits on the same seats and cheers or groans together. Skyboxes become a metaphor for what's wrong with our democracy, which "requires that we share enough of a common life to think of ourselves as engaged in a common purpose."

"I think that men and women from all walks of life, including those now inhabiting the skyboxes, can be attracted and drawn out of their skyboxes into the shared public space of the democratic life," Sandel says. Just don't expect him to dangle incentives to get them out.

Michael Fitzgerald is an editor at -LatitudeNews.com.