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

Michael Sandel’s critiques of our actions are under scrutiny by Philip Badger.

That What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is a subtle and sophisticated analysis of the impact of the free market on our lives will come as no surprise to readers familiar with the recent work of Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University. His argument, which is difficult to resist in several respects, comes down to the point that the increasing commodification of our existence is a form of corruption which undermines both our relationships with each other and the relationship of the individual with society. The book is light on names, and even Aristotle only gets two mentions – oddly, considering he is Sandel’s obvious touchstone throughout. But the doyen of progressive liberalism, John Rawls, is clearly lurking in the shadows here, unacknowledged.

Sandel opens with a list of the things which, in America at least, it is possible to buy – ranging from the predictable (privileged access to medical care), to the bizarre (an upgrade on your prison cell), to the simply obscene (the right to kill an endangered animal). His point is that in a world where everything can be bought and sold, we lose track of why some things shouldn’t be. In the end, what he is against is a form of corruption in which everything, including sex and even friendship and love, is debased (although even the most zealot of neo-liberals must accept the wisdom of the old Beatles’ song – money really ‘can’t buy me love’; and to think otherwise is not so much to corrupt love, as Sandel suggests, but to misunderstand its nature).

In some very clever ways, this is a conservative book, and it will appeal to those on both sides of the Atlantic who bemoan globalisation and its corrosive impact on traditional communities and relationships. There is little faith in the benevolence of Adam Smith’s ‘unseen hand’ to be found in these pages, and there are also moments when Sandel’s egalitarian instincts are very much in evidence. Indeed, he reveals himself to be much more than a knee-jerk reactionary who prioritises the communal over the individual, and he paints liberalism as a more varied political and moral philosophy than some of its critics might allow for. Liberalism, for Sandel, is capable of a self-critique which can distance itself from the market mania of a Hayek or an Ayn Rand and come to an understanding of why justice dictates that there are some goods that must be beyond the reach of anyone’s cheque book. Put simply, the market can disempower as well as liberate, and it is its capacity for merciless economic marginalisation that inspires liberalism’s self-critique.

So for Sandel, liberalism is no pantomime villain, and some of its supporters are acknowledged as recognising the downsides of the unfettered market and as wanting to knock the edges off its power. However – to use an unfortunately financial turn of phrase – the credit given to their understanding is limited. Even those who object to the rich being able to (literally) buy their way to the front of the queue have failed, argues Sandel, to appreciate the true danger that such behaviour betokens. In the end, it is the market’s neutrality about the value of our preferences – a neutrality shared by all varieties of liberalism – that is for him the undoing of our culture. Some might wish for a less hackneyed example than the one that Sandel uses to explain his point – prostitution – but it is well-chosen for his purposes. For progressive liberals like myself, the issue with prostitution is one of whether a woman’s involvement in the ‘oldest profession’ is truly voluntary. We worry that economic circumstance might drive women (and sometimes men) to actions they would otherwise feel repulsed by. However, this marks the limit of the liberal desire to have the law regulate such activity. If we can be truly convinced that free choice is genuinely being exercised here, liberals of all kinds are wont to back off and leave people to it. This, according to Sandel, is a big mistake, and leaves us in a moral vacuum in which we lack the resources to defend what is valuable about human life and our relationships.

It is here that progressive liberals will baulk at Sandel’s critique. Firstly – acknowledging the debt that Rawls owes to Kant in terms of arguing for the intrinsic value of individuals – we ought not to be shy in claiming that some things we don’t want to legislate against are, nonetheless, wrong. Treating you with due respect as a person implies, for both Kant and for Rawls, that I can never treat you as simply a ‘thing’ for my own gratification: if acting morally, I cannot simply treat you, in Kant’s phrase, as a ‘means to an end’. Prostitution is the outstanding example of one person failing to treat another with the kind of respect that this ‘categorical imperative’ of Kant’s demands; and yet, while this might be the foundation of liberal morality, it is less clear that it should play that role in our conception of justice. There is nothing in the liberal notion of legal and political neutrality to stop me imploring, pleading and wishing for my daughter not to choose to become a prostitute; but this is not the same as thinking that I ought to be able to invoke the power of the law to prohibit her from doing so. My values – what we might call my ‘concept of the good’ – are at odds with prostitution, but as a liberal, this only implies my right to exhort rather than dictate to my daughter in her career choice. Only when I see her coerced or her autonomy otherwise curtailed by circumstance should I expect the state to jump in on my side. As another liberal, J.S. Mill, proceeding from a very different tradition, put it in his great essay On Liberty, I should be able to argue, persuade and remonstrate with those whose conception of a meaningful life differs from my own, but not compel them or visit any evil upon them to force them to change. Mill did not doubt that some ways of life are more worthwhile than others – he famously wrote of the higher pleasures of a Socrates compared to the lower pleasures of a pig – but he also argued that what contributes to the development of one person’s ‘higher nature’ might be very different from what contributes to another’s.

Sandel’s view is that liberals think we should ‘leave our principles at the door’ in public debate, but this directive turns out not to stick. On the contrary, there is nothing to stop us from opining about the seedy nature of the international organ market, or the dubious moral status of renting out a womb for profit (to use a couple of other examples he uses to reveal the corrupting power of markets); but there is very little that would allow us to outright ban such practices. Let me be clear here: the moment there is a suspicion that poverty is rendering the ‘choice’ of an organ donor or a surrogate mother anything other than a truly free one, the progressive liberals will want the law to step in. It is in the absence of such a suspicion that we demand the law be silent (but not necessarily ourselves).

The big issue with Professor Sandel’s case against unlimited markets comes down to the questions of what values are to be considered ‘good’ or non-corrupt, and what kinds of backing he thinks the law should give to particular sets of values. If he is prepared to retreat simply to the position that we should not be reticent in expressing our dismay at certain activities, then it’s not at all clear that he holds a view truly distinct from that of many liberals. If, by contrast, he thinks that the law ought to weigh in on the side of one particular concept of the good – a particular set of values about what constitutes a moral and worthwhile existence – he ought, perhaps, be a little more explicit about what such values might be, and why. Instead, what we get here is a kind of implicit gesture towards sets of values common to the cultural and religious traditions of many of the communities that exist within his country [America]. The obvious danger here is that whatever list of values is settled on, it will not encompass or even attempt to encompass the values of all traditions and communities. So what is at issue here is the validity of a kind of legally-backed cultural conservatism, in which the majority, or those who can portray themselves as a majority, get to dictate what is appropriate to the rest of us.

Actually, none of this falls anywhere close to Professor Sandel’s actual intentions. Indeed he is a man who clearly embodies the traits of tolerance and even ‘neutrality’ the lack of which causes him so much concern in others. To this extent, we should value him even as we question the merits of his arguments, and embrace once more Rawls’ dictum that the ‘right’ – meaning the just and unbiased treatment of all – should, in a liberal democracy, take precedence over any particular conception of the ‘good’.

© Philip Badger 2013

Phil Badger teaches philosophy and psychology in Sheffield.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel, £8.99 pb, Penguin, 2013, 256pp, ISBN-13: 978-0241954485.

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