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What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
Michael J. Sandel

A thorough dive into the thorny topic of market values at work in our lives today. Poses a lot of interesting questions and follows them up with convincing answers. Sandel has quickly become one of my favourite writers at work today.

Markets and Morals

Money can buy a lot of things, and far more than it used to. Sandel opens with some interesting and surprising examples of this:

  • Purchasing prison cell upgrades for $82 a night
  • Being paid $378 to lose weight
  • Buying the life insurance policies of the dying

In the modern age, market values are playing a greater role than ever thanks to the influence of Reagan/Thatcher-era economic policies and the end of the cold war.

Doubt might have been cast on our faith in the markets in 2008, and perhaps it might have been again by covid, but this does not seem to have happened in either instance. If anything, our faith/belief in markets has only grown.

'We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets-and market values-have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.' (Page 5)

This is not just explained by simple greed alone. Rather, it is because we have invited market values into our lives and applied them to everything. This is significant for two reasons:

  1. If everything is a 'good for sale', life is harder for those of modest means. Inequality has widened and it's making matters worse.
  2. Putting a price on things can corrupt them. Markets don't just allocate goods, they make value judgments and crowd out non-market values worth caring about.
'The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong.' (Page 7)

Some of the good things in life are degraded if they are commodified. All of this is a significant shift: where we use to have a 'market economy', we now are in a 'market society'. We have not explicitly said that this was something we wanted, we've just fallen into it.

'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, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way.' (Page 9)

There are two barriers to changing this (although Sandel does not suggest any means of breaking them down, maybe because he can't):

  • Prestige/power of market thinking
  • Rancour/emptiness of public discourse

We have very little moral argument left in public discourse, meaning we can no longer answer life's big questions. Perhaps because it's all been crowded out by markets.

'Our politics is overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about.' (Page 13)

Jumping the Queue

There are some examples of queue jumping that are now commonplace:

  • Airplane boarding
  • Theme parks
  • Tourist traps

But there are also, for example, car pool lanes where you can simply pay to use them as express ways. This does two things: it stops them being used for their original purpose of encouraging car sharing, and it also means that it effectively prices the poor out from fast car travel. Should you be able to travel faster simply because you are rich?

Should you be able to jump a queue just because you have money? What about for medical care and doctor's surgeries and the like? Sandel gives the example of how this works in the West with private clinics and also surgeries in China. In America, you have private 'VIP Concierge' clinics that take on far fewer patients so the doctors can spend more time on each family or client. This means that the overall availability of doctors reduces for the average person on the street, they are priced out of the game. In China, there are clinics that work based on a ticket system, but it's corrupted by scalpers who queue up to get the tickets then sell them on for an enormous profit.

'...ticket-scalping scene outside the registration hall of a Beijing hospital: "Dr. Tang. Dr. Tang. Who wants a ticket for Dr. Tang? Rheumatology and immunology."' (Page 25)

Market-minded people argue that all of this activity is good for social utility. Those who want it most (whatever it may be) are the ones who are able to get it. But this isn't so; those that want it and have the money for it are the ones who get it first. Those who want it but don't have the money got to the back of the line.

It is a matter of both ability and willingness.

Fundamentally, these are all instances of the conversion of a public good into instruments for public gain.


'We corrupt a good, an activity, or a social practice whenever we treat it according to a lower norm than is appropriate to it.' (Page 46)

Sandel starts this chapter with the upsetting example of Barbara Harris, a woman who pays women to be sterilized:

'Harris treats drug-addicted and HIV-positive women as damaged baby-making machines that can be switched off for a fee. Those who accept her offer acquiesce in this degrading view of themselves.' (Page 46)

The objections to this are that is both bribery and coercion. It's coercive because, for the drug addict, it is too good to resist. It is also objectionable because it is not something that should be for sale.

'Most economists prefer not to deal with moral questions, at least not in their role as economists.' (Page 48)

As markets have crept into every element of our lives, economists have broadened what they understand their roles to be, more and more walking into moral minefields but only being able to navigate them with the tools given to them by their economic studies. This is evidenced by the amount of talk about 'utility' and its maximisation being the priority for many.

'The last few decades have witnessed the remaking of social relations in the image of market relations. One measure of this transformation is the growing use of monetary incentives to solve social problems.' (Page 51)

One such example is 'cash for grades' in the US. While it did make some performance better, it was not correlated with how much the children were paid. It changed the culture, making it 'cool' to get good grades. It changed attitudes towards the achievement and what it meant.

A similar example were payments for losing weight and getting healthy, such as taking one's medication or reaching certain weight goals. In these instances, cash crowds out the other, better motives for doing the same thing. They are people doing the right things for the wrong reasons.

'Bribes are manipulative. They bypass persuasion and substitute an external reason for an intrinsic one. "You don't care enough about your own well-being to quit smoking or lose weight? Then do it because I'll pay you $750."' (Page 59)

Israeli daycare centres started fining parents for picking up their children late. This led to an increase in the lateness of parents and the number of fines grew. The fines removed the feeling of guilt from the equation and it became more like a fee than a fine. You could absolve yourself through cash payment.

'Markets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose—and promote—certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged.' (Page 64)

Carbon trading is like paying to litter. The market weakens the moral stigma of pollution when it should really be strengthened. You are, again, paying to absolve yourself of your sins when really you ought to just be sinning less. But faith in the market prevails, always.

'The word "incentive" does not appear in the writings of Adam Smith or other classical economists. In fact, it didn't enter economic discourse until the twentieth century and didn't become prominent until the 1980s and 1990s.' (Page 85)

Recasting economics in terms of incentives brings markets into al parts of our lives, but also makes activists of economists (when perhaps they shouldn't). So much for the 'invisible hand' of the market, it's become incredibly manipulative.

How Markets Crowd Out Morals

There are some things you cannot buy, and if you try to you undermine them in the process. You also don't get what you were looking for:

  • Friends
  • Nobel prizes
  • Oscars

Then, there are also things that you can buy, but probably shouldn't:

  • Kidneys
  • Children for adoption

Does buying a wedding speech from someone corrupt the meaning of the thing being delivered? Do gifts only need to be considered in terms of their utility?

In Joel Waldfogel's 'Deadweight Loss of Christmas' (something I've written about before) he makes the argument that most of us are so bad at giving gifts, we destroy a lot of value in the process. Better, therefore, to opt for the more efficient transfer of plain cold cash.

'If you are attending the wedding of a distant cousin, or the bar mitzvah of a business associate's child, it is probably better to buy something from the wedding registry or give cash. But to give money rather  than a well-chosen gift to a friend, lover, or spouse is to convey a certain thoughtless indifference. It's like buying your way out of attentiveness.' (Page 101)

We have, again, two main objections to the incursion of market thinking in areas where we perhaps ought not to allow them:

  • Fairness: the inequality inherent in market choices
  • Corruption: the breakdown of valuable social norms and attitudes
'Market choices are not free choices if some people are desperately poor or lack the ability to bargain on fair terms.' (Page 112)

Sandel then describes the example of a Swiss village chosen as a site for the long-term storage of nuclear waste. In a survey of residents' willingness to accept the waste in their village, an approval rate of 51% was recorded for a voluntary arrangement, but only 25% for an arrangement where they would be compensated. This is civic duty versus bribery.

If you introduce money into the equation, you reduce the urge to act charitably because, with payment, it can't be charity in the first place. This approach reduces the overall stock of altruism present in a society. It gets crowded out.

'Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.' (Page 130)

Markets in Life & Death

WalMart would purchase life insurance policies against their employees and collect the payouts upon their death. Sandel gives the example of an assistant manager who passed away from a heart attack during his shift, leaving WalMart to pocket $300k. The employees and their families were unaware of this happening.

'Creating conditions where workers are worth more dead than alive objectifies them; it treats them as commodity futures rather than employees whose value to the company lies in the work they do.' (Page 136)

Where before a life insurance policy had been a safety net, it had turned into a means of corporate financing and profit. It produces an incentive, not necessarily to encourage death, but perhaps not to value life quite as much as before.

'The discovery, in the mid-1990s, of anti-HIV drugs that extended the lives of tens of thousands of people with AIDS scrambled the calculations of the viatical industry. An executive of a viatical firm explained the downside of life-extending medication: "A 12-month expectancy turning into 24 months does play havoc with your returns."' (Page 138)

Viaticals were the sale and purchase of life insurance policies of dying people with the aim of making a profit. A person with a terminal illness would sell their life insurance policy to an investor for a lump sum much lower than the eventual payout would be, then the investor would pay the premiums from that point forward. If the person dies, the investor pockets the payout. If not, they are saddled with a recurring bill for many years.

'Few viatical investors were motivated by animus. Most wished good health and long life for people with AIDS-except for the ones in their portfolio.' (Page 140)

DARPA also created a 'Terrorism Futures Market' that was supposed to use market forces to surface better predictions because people are betting real money and would reveal otherwise secret/hidden truths. It had more than a few critics across party lines and in the media.

'Would people really bet on, say, the assassination of the king of Jordan if they knew the U.S. government would use the information to prevent the assassination, thus foiling their wager?50' (Page 153)

Naming Rights

Autographs used to be free, but now they're a multibillion dollar industry. Where before it was something that fans would delight in, it's now become a market dominated by profit. Depending on your budget you can buy dirt from pitching mounds, or name the stadia themselves. (These days, you can also buy a Cameo.)

The 'skyboxification' of sports started as a way for businesses to entertain clients, but has led to the stratification of the sporting experience across different affluence levels. It used to be that everyone would sit on the same seats, in the same weather, and experience the same thing.

'Moneyball' underdog tactics only lasted for a season or two until it spread and simple became the norm: 'Moneyball made baseball more efficient, in the economist's sense of the term. But did it make it better? Probably not.' (Page 179)

Cars wrapped in adverts, houses painted in the marketing material of a brand, casino face tattoos... where does it stop? Again, with all of these, we have the coercion objection that the desperate may just need the cash, thus making it less of a free market than we think.

'In the early 2000s, many cash-strapped cities and towns were tempted by an offer that seemed too good to be true. A company in North Carolina was offering new, fully equipped police cars, complete with flashing lights and backseat jail bars, for $1 per year. The offer came with a small condition: the cars would be covered, NASCAR-style, with ads and commercial logos.' (Page 193)

Prisons and schools are celebrated as marketing locations because of their 'captive' audiences. Rather than raise funds from the public to do the right thing, we sell access to the eyeballs of desperate prisoners and impressionable children.

'Today, public schools are awash in advertising, corporate sponsorships, product placement, even naming rights.' (Page 197)

'Since children are in school most of the day, marketers work aggressively to reach them there. Meanwhile, inadequate funding for education has made public schools only too willing to welcome them.' (Page 199)

Democracy doesn't need a perfectly equal society, but it does need people to share a common life.

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