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What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

June 12th, 2012 · No Comments · Ideas

Big Ideas:

  • The US is shifting from a market economy to a market society, where everything is for sale.
  • Putting preferential access to public goods for a price only increases inequalities.

This PBS.org interview explores Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy.” We can pay for faster processing through airport security lines, access to the the fast lane on roads and there are even companies that will hire people to wait in line for you to get into congressional hearings in the US. Where do we draw the line?

It is a fascinating discussion. Please watch the video.

Watch ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ and What it Shouldn’t Buy on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Here is another great interview with Sandel in the Guardian, ‘We need to reason about how to value our bodies, human dignity, teaching and learning.’

According to the logic of the market, the matter of whether these transactions are right or wrong is literally meaningless. They simply represent efficient arrangements, incentivising desirable behaviour and “improving social utility by making underpriced goods available to those most willing to pay for them”. To Sandel, however, the two important questions we should be asking in every instance are: Is it fair to buy and sell this activity or product? And does doing so degrade it? Almost invariably, his answers are no, and yes.

However, a true believer in the law of the market would surely argue that all this proves is that sometimes a particular marketisation device doesn’t work. For them it remains not a moral debate but simply one of efficacy. Sandel writes about the wrongness of a medical system in which the rich can pay for “concierge doctors” who will prioritise wealthy patients – but to anyone who believes in markets, Sandel’s objection would surely cut little ice. They would say it’s a question of whether or not the system is fulfilling its purpose. If the primary purpose of a particular hospital is to save lives, then if it treats a millionaire’s bruised toe while a poorer patient dies of a heart attack in the waiting room, the marketisation has clearly not worked. But if the function of the hospital is to maximise profits, then treating the millionaire’s sore toe first makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

“I suspect that you have – we have – a certain idea of what a hospital is for, such that a purely profit-driven one misses the mark; it’s deficient in some way; it falls short of what hospitals are properly for. You would say, wouldn’t you, that that hospital – that market-driven one – is not a proper hospital. They’ve misidentified, really, what a hospital is for. Just as if they were a school that said: ‘Our purpose isn’t, really, primarily, to educate students, but to maximise revenue – and we maximise revenue by offering certain credentials, and so on,’ you’d say: ‘Well, that’s not a proper school; they’re deficient in some way.'”

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