Behavioural Book Reviews

“What Money Can’t Buy” by Michael J. Sandel

Sandel makes it very clear in his book, What Money Can’t Buy, that he is a philosopher. You might expect Sandel, as the book is a meticulous analysis of the free market – an entirely economic concept – and its effects on society, to at least explore economic thought and reasoning, but he is scornful of it; he likes to distance himself from it throughout. He argues that economic thinking, which revolves around efficiency, has turned the market economy, as he puts it, into a market society, where we have come to put explicit values on things that should only hold implicit value.

Sandel worries that, by embracing the free market, we are unknowingly “crowding out” human morals and letting market morals prevail. He argues that, when we embrace the market in places that it should not exist, problems of fairness and corruption arise. However, before looking at it any further, it is important to understand that corruption, in Sandel’s terms, is not just an illicit payoff but is also “treating something to a lower norm than is appropriate to it.” He suggests that the moral implications of corruption are perhaps greater than we currently envisage.

Amongst an exhaustive list of examples in the book, the idea of markets crowding out human morals can be illustrated through the market for blood donation. Sandel describes a study by British sociologist Richard Titmuss, where the system of blood collection in the UK is compared to the system in the US. The difference between the two systems is that, in the UK, all blood is given by unpaid, voluntary donors, whilst in the US, some blood is donated and some bought by blood banks from people who are willing to sell it. Not only did an abundance of data suggest the British system worked better than the American one, as there were lower costs, less blood was wasted and the risk of contamination was lessened, but an ethical argument is also presented concerning fairness and corruption: the fairness side to the argument suggests that a market in blood exploits the poor as people from lower income groups become more willing to donate with a monetary incentive, so blood is simply redistributed from the poor to the rich. However, the corruption side to the argument is that, by turning blood into a commodity, people’s sense of obligation begins to erode; by making blood a commodity, blood donorship is demoralised and the altruism in the act of giving is undermined.

However, Sandel’s book is no more than a critique of the way we have embraced markets into society. The book is certainly eye-opening but, because his stance is rather distant, he cannot go further than that. He describes how good values are being undermined by corrupting ones, but how can we distinguish between them if they are, to some extent, subjective? Sandel clearly recognises that markets are always present, but if these morals are subjective, how do we know how far markets can intervene in society? Perhaps this is not what Sandel is trying get across: perhaps by presenting the effects of the free market on societal norms, he wishes to make us more aware of the existing norms so they do not erode further.

What the book illustrates very well is that, at a time when economics has branched out to other academic fields, efficiency is not everything: altruism, generosity and responsibility all remain important. What Money Can’t Buy makes us more aware of these values in an attempt to stop the market from crowding them out, in the hope that they will prevent economics from making society a little more dismal.

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