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

TED 2010- Michael Sandel
TED 2010- Michael Sandel (Photo credit: redmaxwell)

I loved Michael Sandel‘s series of lectures on Justice (free on iTunes), so when I read about this book in the Guardian, thought I’d get hold of it.

What Money Can’t Buy is a very thoughtful and measured discussion of something that fills me with rage: the forced introduction of market forces into all walks of life and public service, from education and health through policing and political lobbying.

Sandel has two simple objections to the free market ideologues. One is to do with fairness; the other to do with corruption of things that are part of the public good. Introducing market norms, he shows over and over again, tends to squeeze out other non-market norms (like altruism and, you know, just being good to each other).

Reducing everything in life to an ability to pay creates unfairness: in education, in health, in employment, and in politics. Creating a market in things that are supposed to be free means that the wealthy have unfair access. Sandel gives the good example of free theatre (Shakespeare in the Park). When people pay others to queue for them, or create a secondary market in something that was meant to be free, it means that access to the free theatre becomes difficult for those without the ability to pay: the very people who were meant to be the target audience. What Sandel doesn’t point out, actually, is that events like free public theatre have already been subsidised and paid for by taxpayers; to create a secondary market in tickets is therefore doubly immoral, especially when those who do so are wealthy people who pay proportionately less tax than they should. But free theatre is just the tip of the iceberg, and the seeping of market forces into all walks of life is a cancer that eats away at our social contract.

Once the non-market norms have been squeezed out, it’s hard to get them back. Sandel gives another example: of an Israeli childcare provider who started to charge parents for late pickups of their kids. Instead of a reduction in the problem of late pickups (which forced teachers to stay later to care for semi-abandoned kids), the introduction of fines led to more of them. Clearly, once money is involved, people stopped feeling guilty about being late. The fines were abandoned, but the rate of late pickups remained high: the social contract had been broken.

A key point made by Sandel is that the cancerous spread of market norms means that having money matters more than ever. If everything is subject to market forces, it means that money can buy more things that it could ever buy before. This makes the increasing gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our capitalist societies even more significant. It would be okay to be poorer in a society where the best education and the best healthcare was available to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. But when having money gets you better service and better access whilst at the same time squeezing out those who are unable to pay, wealth inequality becomes even more immoral.

It creeps in everywhere. People jump queues at amusement parks, airports, the channel tunnel, by paying a bit extra. We Britons joke about them, but the queue is fundamental to our society. A queue is a great leveller: we really are all in it together when we queue. Given the opportunity to skip queues by paying more money, some wealthy people choose to do so. People in the regular queue may feel a mixture of emotions when they see this. My own reaction is seething rage. Money buys the rich quicker access, but also separates them from the rest of us. The more opportunities wealthy people take to use money to give themselves a separate, better service, the worse the service for the rest of us gets. This is why private schools and private healthcare are a cancer. We have more private cops (security guards) in this country than we have cops.

Private schools, private health, skyboxes in stadia, fast track passport control: all signs of the same cancer.

I used to laugh when people who’d paid Easyjet for priority boarding merely got on the bus that takes everyone to the plane first (and were then last off). I’ve once or twice seen someone trying to jump a queue in traffic (by going up the hard shoulder or other rule-breaking behaviour) get their just deserts. But such moments of satisfaction are all too rare. Most of them time, the rich get what they want, and they will always treat a relatively small fine (for a late pickup, or for parking where they shouldn’t) as a price worth paying to get what they want.

I’m angry, bitter, frustrated by all this, sure. When people like me go on about stuff like this, we’re often accused of waging class war. You bet. But I didn’t start this class war. The war waged by the rich against the poor was started a long time ago, and it has accelerated in recent years. There have been free market ideologues for a long time, and they’ve always been morally corrupt. Being morally corrupt, they don’t even know how to care.

It always comes back for me, to Kant‘s categorical imperative. How would it be if everyone behaved like you? If we all paid the extra for priority passport control? Market forces would mean that the price of priority treatment would go up and up, all so the rich could maintain their pristine separation and fast-track themselves through the queues. In other words, we can’t all behave like you. Which means your behaviour is not just unfair but morally wrong.

An important book, this was probably more measured and reasonable than it would have been had I written it. It’s also somewhat repetitive of the same two basic points (which I suppose only adds to its power). Sandel hints at a discussion we need to have about what constitutes the good life, but never gets around to having it. He clearly doesn’t want to walk into tricky ideological areas. In America, he’d be accused of socialism. Of course, what America needs more than it needs anything else is socialism.

The last quarter of the book consists of endnotes. One of the surprises of the Kindle is that books sometimes finish when you’re not expecting them to.

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