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Issue No.: 559 | January 2014
 

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

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What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets - Michael J. Sandel, Published by Penguin Books, London, 2013, pp. 244. Paperback. Rs. 499/-. Reviewed by Ritvik M. Kulkarni

There is a widespread feeling among economists and policy-makers that market mechanisms are the best means to allocate goods among people. Today markets have penetrated deep into areas of social life which were previously untouched by economic influence. Moreover, market reasoning has been widely used to study various aspects of human behavior. In his latest book What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel expresses concern for the growing tendency of allowing market principles to govern non-market goods/services at the cost of moral values. He believes that instead of having a market economy, the world is becoming a market society. 

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at the Harvard University. He is widely known for his course on ‘Justice’, which received a huge response and became one of the most attended lecture series in the history of the institution. His previous books include Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982; 2nd edition, 1998) and Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). Although Sandel does not like to be labeled in this manner, he is also known as an advocate of ‘communitarianism’–an ideology that upholds the primacy of the common good. 

The opening chapter of What Money Can’t Buy offers several examples of the worrisome, larger-than-life role acquired by the market. This is followed by a detailed discussion of the increasing importance and impact of monetary incentives in both market and non-market spheres. The next two chapters form the crux of Sandel’s argument against the incursion of market reasoning into the moral domain. He then concludes with an open question to all his readers: "Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?” (p. 203).

In 1998, AIDS-affected Kendall Morrison had very little sand left in the hourglass, and death seemed imminent. An investor bought his life insurance policies for half the amount; hoping to reap the benefits after the short time which Kenneth had left to live. But the investor lost heavily against the high odds when the new drugs revived the dying patient. The investor was so angry that he sued the broker for fraud and breach of contract. "I’ve never felt like anybody wanted me dead before”, said Morrison after he periodically received FedExes and calls to check if he was still alive (p.138).

Such an arrangement involving trade in a dying person’s life insurance policy is called a viatical transaction. The economist looks at such a deal as a win-win scenario; the dying patient gets ready money in hand and the buyer has an obvious chance of profit. But despite the economic efficiency and simplicity of the arrangement, there is something morally wrong about it. Sandel responds to this dilemma by invoking two arguments that he has used throughout the book to explain the morbidity of similar cases of market infiltration. 

He believes that in the first place, even though it may seem like a mutually beneficial arrangement, it is unfair and coercive against the person who is on his deathbed. His consent is influenced by his disadvantageous position where there is a dire need of money and very little or no bargaining power whatsoever. On the contrary, a buyer can simply move to the next terminally ill person if he does not agree to the conditions of the previous one. 

The second and the most important argument that is applied to all the examples the author cites, is that of ‘corruption’. By corruption he means the devaluation of a norm resulting from its treatment with a lower respect than it deserves. If parents start having children for the purpose of selling them to the highest bidder, it would be a gross devaluation of the norm of parenthood.  When you treat the death of a fellow human being as a tradable commodity, the value of human life and the gravity of death decrease in the eyes of every other human being.  In simple words, it is like placing a dollar value on the life and death of a person.

This argument can also be applied to incentive-driven behavior as for example when an addict is paid to quit smoking or an obese person is paid to lose weight. Apart from the fact that the healthy behavior may end once the supply of incentives is stalled, there is something intrinsically objectionable in such behavior. The objection stems from the moral expectation that people should care for their own health without any additional monetary incentive. As Sandel puts it, "Good health is not just about the right cholesterol levels, but to develop the right kind of attitude towards our physical well-being and treating our bodies with respect. Paying people to take their meds hardly does anything to develop this attitude" (p. 59).

The two main concerns that Sandel articulates point to real defects in today’s society. It is particularly worrisome that many people have chosen to live with the unsavory sway of market values in the public sphere. Sandel’s book aims to put an end to such capitulation and provoke the public to conduct a critical discussion on this crucial issue.  It seeks to question the extent of power money has come to exercise and to demarcate the boundaries in which markets should exercise their supremacy. It is not just about what money cannot buy; more importantly, it is about what money can, but should not be permitted to buy. 

There are only two minor drawbacks in this work. The first of these stems from the book’s almost exclusive focus on the Western countries. The social values and practices prevailing there often greatly differ from those followed elsewhere in the world. While Sandel’s arguments have universal application, there are still some domains in the East that are safe from market invasion. Secondly, throughout the book (especially in the concluding chapter), there are references to the functioning and principles of baseball. People who do not understand the technicalities of the rules and procedure of this game may have difficulty in understanding the point that the author wants to make. 

On the whole, the book is very readable. It demands no prior or technical knowledge either of economic concepts or of moral philosophy. All the reader needs to have is the ability to understand the arguments which Sandel puts across lucidly and persuasively with the help of humor and sound reasoning. The book is structured in such a way that the reader remains curious and engaged throughout its nearly two hundred and fifty pages. Armed with a strong thesis, Michael Sandel has succeeded in his objective of provoking and aiding his readers to ponder over the importance of morals and the limitations of markets.
 
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