#EmptyShelf17 #4: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel

The introduction starts strongly, and throughout the book it challenges our thinking, and what we’ve become used to as the ‘norm’ in our contemporary society (this is partly why I think history and anthropology are helpful, the help us see that life was/can be different according to different values, beliefs and social norms):

The years leading up the financial crisis of 2008 were a heady time of market faith and deregulation – an era of market triumphalism. The era began in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher proclaimed their conviction that markets, not government, held the key to prosperity not freedom. And it continued into the 1990s, with the market-friendly liberalism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who moderated but consolidated the faith that markets are the primary means for achieving the public good.

Today, that faith is in doubt. The era of market triumphalism has come to an end. The financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risk efficiently. It also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals and that we need somehow to reconnect them. But it’s not obvious what this would mean, or how we should go about it.

The main reasons for worrying about a society in which ‘everything is for sale’ (I think we have seen, with e.g. the NHS) are inequality (if you have less, you’ll have less access) and corruption (as money buys political influence, etc.) and as the gap gets larger, this gets more problematic.

I talked to people for several days after finishing this book about aspects that I’d read in it, including the notion that money can buy your way to top of the queue for everything, how money is used as an incentive – and those who are poorer have less choice but to accept the incentives – including for sterilisation (there appears to be a choice, but it’s a limited choice), questions of authenticity in friendship and best man speeches, an investigations into insurance industries where investors are basically invested in the insurance holders dying early, and the question of how far every aspect of life should be open to advertising and naming, and how this has changed the fundamental nature of e.g. baseball matches – where everyone used to stand side-by-side, and now many are ‘up in the boxes’, and the sport less brings people together than reinforces pre-existing divdes. Each section has interesting ways in which attempts have/are being made to ‘do things differently’.

Buy the book (Amazon)

See this TED talk by the author: