True elegance is often found in deducing striking and sound conclusions from very simple observations – observations that are accessible to all. Michael J Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy – The moral limits of markets” seems to me a case in point. Sandel starts off with a couple of simple premisses and takes it from there, going roughly along the following lines: 1) The pre-2008 era of market triumphalism has come to an end. The financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risks efficiently, it also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals – and that something needs to be done. 2) While some argue that (an increase in) greed is the cause, the most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed, but the expansion of markets and market values into spheres of life where they do not belong. 3) Inveighing against greed would therefore be a symptomatic treatment at best, we need to rethink the role that markets should play in our society. We need to think through the moral limits of markets, to ask whether there are things that money should not buy, because 4) the more money can buy, the more affluence or the lack thereof matters. 5) This can be expressed in terms of inequality, as experienced by lower and middle class families over the past decades, but also in terms of corruption. Markets are not inert as economists often assume, markets leave their mark. They can crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about. 6) Some of the good things in life can and have been corrupted or degraded into commodities. 7) The discussion of where the market belongs and where it does not has not taken place during the era of market triumphalism, as a result we have drifted from having a market economy to a being market society without realising it or deciding to do so.
Consider the proliferation of for profit schools, hospitals, and prisons; the outsourcing of war and security to private military contractors and private security firms, respectively. Consider pharma’s aggressive marketing and prescription of drugs to consumers in first world countries. Continue reading “Less mindless drift, more flavor”