The Sunday review: What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets by Michael J Sandel

by Anthony Painter

A few years back I was on a college committee that was considering whether to offer an iPod as an incentive for students to enrol at our establishment. We looked at the costs and benefits extensively. In the end, we decided against the idea mainly on the grounds that we thought it would create perverse incentives – to attend but not necessarily succeed. The decision was taken and we moved on.

The reason I raise this is because this exact discussion is one of the central case studies presented by Michael J Sandel in What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets. His basic argument is that we need to quarantine the market and limit its ability to corrupt public goods and things we hold sacred. Over the last thirty years, market forces have been injected into more and more areas of our lives. This has destroyed things of value and we now even seem incapable of engaging in moral discourse. There are sacred cows.

So would our debate have been enriched by conducting it along moral lines? We had a fairly utilitarian discussion of the costs and benefits based on the available evidence. Would we have been protecting the public interest to a greater extent had we started off by articulating that the corruption of education through the use of market incentives should be avoided as it is wrong?

Actually, such a discourse would have been a disaster. I imagine there would have been a pretty angry response to it being presented in moral terms. In fact, there may have been a reaction to such a discourse and a different decision may have been taken. In Sandel’s world-view Educational Maintenance Allowances are a moral bad. Despite presenting some evidence that some incentive structures can improve educational attainment, this is largely dismissed. Just how moral is it to ignore evidence of interventions that can improve attainment and performance?

At a very basic level, Sandel’s argument that markets have moral limits is of course correct. To pick an extreme illustration, do we really want elderly people being paid to die so that their organs can be transplanted? It’s disgusting and disgust is what morality responds to. Very quickly though, Sandel moves from the self-evident to the preposterous.

Here’s just some of the potential ‘moral’ bads in Sandel’s world: corporate boxes at sports events, paid access to car pool lanes, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, paid access to your GP’s phone, renting out your head to carry temporary corporate ads, being paid to take part in a clinical trial, selling your life insurance policy early for cash and paying someone to stay in line on your behalf.

Amongst this list are some things that you may not like, that you would prefer not to do, that might constitute an abuse of market power, that are downright anti-social, or that provoke a nostalgic regret. But are they ‘immoral’?

Just take the example of paid line-waiting which seems a pretty strong contender for a ‘moral bad’. Apparently, lobbyists (boo,hiss!) in Washington DC pay people to wait in line for them so they can access congressional hearings and this can leave interest groups (hurray!) and likes locked out as all the seats are full. Does this undermine Congress?

The whole point of democracy is equal access and participation on an equal basis. The system isn’t working so it should be fixed perhaps through a randomised lottery with non-transferable tickets – which is a regulated market rather than moral response. System failure is not the same thing as immorality. To solve it by moral means simply invites one group – the ‘goodies’- to confront another group – the ‘baddies’. Nothing would be resolved but there would be an almighty row.

So instead of the harmonious and elevated public discourse that Michael J Sandel craves, there would be an enormous conflict of the righteous and the wrong. Which side are you on? It would rather depend on the situation. When it comes to tax avoidance we know which side Jimmy Carr (rightly in my view for what it’s worth) finds himself on. What of David Cameron’s late father? It gets rather uncomfortable very quickly all this moralising.

Sandel desires a ‘reasoned public debate’ to resolve all this instead of ‘shouting matches’ on cable TV. Well, he clearly doesn’t watch much cable TV because a lot of the shouting is about moral disagreement – Fox News has a very lively moral discourse. What was the Jerry Springer show all about? That often ended in physical violence and each show ended with a moral lesson from Mr Springer himself (let’s not even go into his personal morality). The BBC’s flagship moral debate show – The Big Questions – is anything but reasoned debate. One side simply attacks the other and no-one’s listening.

The simple fact is that a moralising discourse is a sure fire to destroy reasoned public discourse. And, of course, given the nature of modern politics, it would likely be either an elite morality or that of the gang. As for the notion that morality has retreated from the public square, it’s clearly a nonsense. It’s just that moral questions can’t keep up with the energy of change in a human society and economy.

What money can’t buy is essentially a fleshing out of the final chapter of Sandel’s popular book Justice. That chapter argues for a politics of virtue. It was an awkward end to a brilliant piece of public education. That chapter left an uncomfortable feeling of suspicion at the end of that book. This book underlines that uncomfortable feeling.

It’s not that there is no place for morality in politics or that markets have no moral limits. It’s just that a society that draws those lines where Sandel does is heading for major conflict, culture wars, a smugly righteous elite and a corrosive suspicion between groups of people self-defined as morally good yet in conflict. In other words, far from being an imagined place of virtue, it resembles America as it is at its worst. Professor Michael J. Sandel the public educator is infinitely preferable to Rabbi Sandel the moral arbiter.

Anthony Painter is an author and a critic.

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9 Responses to “The Sunday review: What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets by Michael J Sandel”

  1. swatantra says:

    Some interesting ideas here … and yet these are the very moral and ethical issues that politicians have and will have to address more so in the future: issues of life and death.
    When I was at school we actually had a subject called Philosophy and Ethics; maybe we should reintroduce it back into the school curriculum, along with Domestic Science and other practical subjects like woodwork and metalwork instead of Media Studies.
    People need to get an idea of what the purpose of Life is and whether a Life artificially prolonged is worth continuing with especially if that individual doesn’t wish to suffer physical pain any longer. Maybe the idea of Right and Wrong needs to be opened up again and Capital Punishment and whether it is actually humane to incarcerate an individual for the remainder of their lives with no prospect of release., or to end their life summarily.
    And by 2050 we shall have a more elderly and more infirm and more idle population usng up ever decreasing vital resources.
    Money can’t buy happiness or a better quality of life; it only appears to. We need to prepare the next generation to be able to tackle these very difficult but pressing questions.

  2. Yes, I wouldn’t dispute that. The question is where and how we should apply moral questions – and Sandel casts the net far too far. The impact of using moral discourse to resolve public policy dilemmas is problematic. On issues of life or death it has rather more obvious application. But, for example, should we criticise the Coalition’s healthcare or welfare reforms because they are immoral or because they won’t work. To use the moral critique actually cast darkness on the discussion – it essentially closes down the discussion there. I can’t think that is in anyway helpful in, eg, assessing the utility and success of the EU emissions trading system. It either works or it doesn’t. It either distributes costs in a reasonable way or it doesn’t. These are political and practical questions ultimately – i.e. in what ways can we act collectively to secure better outcomes?

    The realm of personal morality is a different sphere. People bring their own sense of morality into the public square. But once you start to use that to create public policy quite a few issues emerge as discussed above and elsewhere (see my review of Haidt’s The righteous mind). If you want to see what happens when things get really morally charged then just look at pretty much every sectarian conflict.

  3. Brumanuensis says:

    I have to say, having read WMCB, ‘Justice’ and his ‘Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics’, I simply don’t recognise the Michael Sandel portrayed in this review.

    First of all, Sandel is nowhere near as dogmatic as you make him out to be. If he was, then he wouldn’t just be objecting to the ‘market society’, but also the market economy. As it is, Sandel’s concerns are that certain goods, particularly public goods, are being subjected to a sort of moral version of ‘Gresham’s Law’, i.e. ‘bad incentives drive out good ones’. He isn’t blind to the potential benefits of some ‘marketised’ schemes, because as he says on p. 64 during the discussion of refugees:

    ‘One might acknowledge the degrading effect of a market in refugees and still conclude that the scheme does more good than harm. But what the example illustrates is that markets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose – and promote – certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged’.

    So the point is not, ‘all market schemes are irredeemably evil’, it’s ‘perverse incentives may arise from the methods we use and we should be alert to the dangers of encouraging people to do the “right” things, for the wrong reasons’.

    You’re also being very unfair on Sandel when you talk about the section on educational payments. Sandel does not ‘[present] some evidence that some incentive structures can improve educational attainment, this is largely dismissed’. Sandel makes a number of valid points that many schemes didn’t work and the ones that did work often seemed to work for reasons that were unconnected to the rationale for their introduction. This, again, should alert us to the danger of relying upon potentially flawed incentives and their arguably corrupting effect upon decision-making.

    More broadly, I don’t understand what you think ‘morality’ is. I think your confusion is very typical of liberal-left thinking, which operates according to a sort of mushy consequentialist utilitarianism, where for fear of seeming ‘judgemental’, no-one is prepared to state that certain choices are good or bad.

    For example, you say ‘The whole point of democracy is equal access and participation on an equal basis. The system isn’t working so it should be fixed perhaps through a randomised lottery with non-transferable tickets – which is a regulated market rather than moral response. System failure is not the same thing as immorality’.

    And you know what? I think Sandel would completely agree with your solution and your diagnosis of ‘the whole point of democracy’. This is because Sandel is not operating according to some black-and-white dichotomy between ‘markets’ and ‘morals’, or ‘efficiency’ and ‘morality’, but merely diagnosing the moral aspect (not the totality!) of the problem and suggesting that the current method is morally flawed. The solution you propose – which has some parallels with the selection process for jury duty – is impeccably Aristotelian and would undoubtedly meet with Sandel’s approval.

    However, I am confused by your statement ”The whole point of democracy is equal access and participation on an equal basis’. Equally, in your reply above, you say ‘[Emissions trading] either distributes costs in a reasonable way or it doesn’t. These are political and practical questions ultimately – i.e. in what ways can we act collectively to secure better outcomes?’

    WHY is it ‘the whole point of a democracy’ to have ‘equal access’ and ‘participation on an equal basis’? This is, horror of horrors, a moral question. Democracy and equality are not preferred because they are self-evidently more efficient, but because we feel that they are more moral ways of organising society. A democracy redistributes power, but why is this desirable if not for the moral purpose of giving citizens a greater share of control over their lives? Equally, how do we define a ‘reasonable way’ of distributing costs? Carbon taxes – which I support – are regressive in nature. However they are also an effect way of internalising environmental externalities. Reconciling this dilemma is not just a practical matter, but also a moral difficulty. We must decide whose interests are more important and whether it is right to ask people to sacrifice a measure of their well-being for the greater good.

    Conservatives – as the authors of ‘The Political Brain’ pointed out – have always understood that appeals to morality are the path to electoral success. IDS main argument in favour of welfare reform isn’t an efficiency one, but centres on the idea that ‘welfare should not pay more than work’ and that work improves people, not just in a material sense, but in a holistic sense. These are moral arguments and if the left continues to deploy the utilitarian technocratic language of efficiency and results against the discourse of ‘deserts’ and virtue, we will keep losing election after election after election, because the public won’t identify with our values.

    In your review of ‘The Righteous Mind’, you tried to come up with some kind of alternative, in this statement:

    ‘We can create institutions to incentivise certain behaviours. These are perfectly voluntary – you can join or leave the institution. We can exchange goods and services. Or I can give you a gift with no expectation of reciprocation. We can set up a firm together, work together, or take action together to create a better future for our society or our neigbourhood. Cultures of interest, identity, and commitment can embrace moral content but also go beyond it. Co-operative action that has little moral content can still acquire purpose and succeed. This is the liquid state. It’s less resilient than the solid state perhaps but it’s more adaptable’.

    I honestly don’t understand what you mean. But the main problem here is that you are thinking of morality along the lines of the American ‘Culture Wars’, with gays and abortion being the main topics. That’s not the sum total of morality. There is such a thing as public morality. Communities must decide the norms that regulate their behaviour, otherwise they will fall apart. At some point, the discussion must cease and we must decide what moral order we wish to establish. The only condition of this should be that we should be capable of changing these arrangements in line with evolving public norms – but then morality is not fixed and is flexible. This isn’t about throwing practicality and rational discourse out the window; it’s about enhancing our discourse with a rich moral language of justice, virtue and ‘the good’, that will bring about a profound social change in the way we see ourselves and others, hopefully for the better.

    Ultimately, so-called moral neutrality is a sham. We are not remaining neutral; we are letting others make the decisions for us. As Sandel notes on p. 202:

    ‘Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means the markets will decide them for us…we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live’.

    As socialists, we want to change society. Ignoring the moral ramifications of our ideals is foolish. We have to be brave and prepare to fight our corner for the good life and persude others that they should join us in that fight. That is politics.

  4. Brumanuensis says:

    This isn’t, by the way, a call for moral heretics to be burned at the stake. People should be free to advocate their preferred form of society, but ultimately we will have to, if only for a certain period of time, have to decide what principles we wish to order society on and what virtues and qualities we want to promote and instill in our fellow citizens. At the moment, those decisions are being made in an obscure and often incoherent manner. What we need is to start making them in the open, with a maximum of transparency and openess.

  5. Chris says:

    I’m a bit troubled by your thoughtful article.

    I certainly agree that politics/public discourse isn’t the same as morality. However, I do think the former must be normative. You seem to be saying that most of the political/public realm is about ‘what works’. But what works must, eventually, hit the question of what it is good -or even The Common Good. The fact that we don’t all agree about this is a defining feature of the dissensus that we call ‘politics’. It’s not a reason to retreat from it.

    People get motivated to take part in politics for lots of reasons, but a real motivator for many (especially on the left!) -is the question of justice, or instance. A steep level of inequality is bad for a society -as ‘The Spirit Level’ showed. But bad doesn’t only include say, ‘inefficient for the running of the economy’ (I think it is this, however). It is as bad as in ‘unjust’. Whether or not we call this ‘moral’ or not, we are clearly dealing with different versions of the Good when we hear (say) Johns Redwood and McDonnell arguing about tax or benefits.

    One conclusion here is, surely, that there is no neat fact/value gap; maybe the idea that there is, and that morality is all about private life and the public square the place for sorting out technical differences, is a symptom of the problems, not the solution. The problem with the market (=capitalism), is that it is nihilistic. But the point about the political is that there we confront each other and disclose who we are when we argue for and try to enact different visions of the Good. This needn’t be a context for covering one’s ears and screaming at the other, but it can’t only be a place in which we forget what matters more than ‘what works’. What works matters, to be sure, but it is only understandable in relation to some notion of what Just, or good, etc -whether or not we capitalise these words or call then ‘moral’.

  6. @Brumanuensis

    If Sandel’s point is simply that there is a moral dimension to political decision making then its indisputable. The whole point of the review isn’t argue against morality as your comment implies which I thought I’d made obvious. It’s to question where Michael J Sandel draws the line and the consequences of that in terms of him achieving his ideal of an enlightened public discourse.

    Is there a moral basis to democracy yes – and I don’t suggest otherwise. But that’s not all it’s about. Morality often masks some interest or other and can often actually be about power.

    My problem with Sandel and to a certain extent, Haidt too – they draw the moral universe incredibly widely. The consequence of expanding the space of morally ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ instead of better or worse (ie what we would prefer and wouldn’t) is to close down debate rather than open it up. A moral discussion where there are two competing moral ‘goods’ is incredibly hard to sustain without significant conflict.

    As for your conflation of ‘what the left thinks’ with my overall argument….I’m afraid that sort of associative sleight of hand isn’t really helpful. The point is we are a complex mix of interest, social belonging, morality and democracy and that means we interact in a myriad of ways. Our moral character is just one of these interactions.

    By the way, you say that you don’t know what I mean by morality. Given you copied and pasted other bits from my review of The Righteous Mind, it would have been generous to other readers to have placed my definition from that review here. I’ll do it for their benefit:

    “A set of regulating norms, rules and behaviours which are defined by good and bad and when violated create an intuitive objection and attract some form of punishment.”

    That seems to me to be a workable definition which could no doubt be improved but at least distinguishes it from other forms of human interaction. What is Sandel’s definition? At least Haidt, while drawing it far too wide, made his clear.

    Your point about welfare is a moral question – in major part. It is about reciprocal fairness. It’s similar to Jimmy Carr case actually. But then I made that point in the review which you then ignored to go off on a rant about rationalism and the left. The new moralism is interesting. Moral dialogue is not something we should be afraid of but nor should we think it will take us to where we may want to go – there is a degree of disdain for those who pose as the carriers of ‘virtue’ and there are often less fraught ways on making collective decisions.

    More generally, it would help things considerably if, instead of just ascribing opinions to me, you ask me what I think then construct a critique on that basis if you wish. Then we can have a discussion rather than this fraught back and forth. Up to you but I’d much prefer to engage in that way.

  7. @Chris.

    I agree largely with what you’ve said. Of course we are motivated by a sense of justice (in fact, my forthcoming has the subtitle ‘Social Justice after the Crash’). I’m uncomfortable, however, with notions of the ‘common good’ because they are often designed to elevate one notion of good over another and close down debate. My instant question to anyone who argues for the ‘common good’ is ‘whose good’? And if that notion of good is drawn too widely then it stifles democracy rather than enhances it. There are some examples in Sandel’s book that are most definitely enhanced through a moral prism but most are not.

    Someone on Twitter asked me yesterday whether I regarded ‘a tax funded, health service free at the point of use to be a moral good’. And actually, I had to answer no. I consider full health care for the sick and injured to be a moral good. That can be delivered in many different ways. I happen to prefer an NHS and value it as a collective institution. The motivation for establishing the NHS was in large part moral but the actual institution design is not. Moral considerations have their place but let’s not turn everything into moral discussion – it may actually harm our cause.

    By the way, I’m not sure the market is nihilistic. It is a social institution and so it reflects who we are which, is in part driven by values. It may just poorly reflect those values by itself. We can’t separate out our individuality, sociability and our moral character….they come as a bundle.

  8. Chris says:

    Thanks for your response, Anthony. A few further thoughts in reponse to you:

    (1) Can’t we have a political discourse which is normative and connected to issues like justice, but which is distinct from morality? I’m thinking here of the sort of concern for the common world we find in Hannah Arendt.

    (2) Can’t the Common Good be a site of dissensus and debate? the idea would be that we get a bit more honest with ourselves when we argue for policies -by talking about what is good. So we might discuss (say) economic growth without supposing that it is merely a technical issue for economisits (anyway, all economics is political economy, in my view). We might also then bring ideals like social solidarity into better focus. None of this implies a communitarian coercion.

    (3) Your point re the NHS helps me make my point. One of several reasons to value and defend the NHS is becuase it has a role in enhancing social solidarity. It’s not just a technical issue. Maybe we need to use a normative political vocabulary that is neither ‘technical’ nor ‘moral’.

    (4) As for the market – I do think that in itself, the drive to realise a surplus is in itself nihilistic. The way to bundle it with what matters to us is political action. Historically, it has tended to overshadow other ways of being social (I’m thinking of Polanyi here). Too often, it drives us -not the other way around.

  9. Chris,

    I’m actually rather struck by your basic point about a normative political vocabulary that isn’t ‘moral’. In a previous comment I had a go at defining what morality means to me copied across from a previous review. I’ll have to give your point some more thought but it does seem like a way of moving beyond the impasse. Some collective action action is neither utilitarian nor moral but what I have described as ‘social’. Moral discourse confuses too many things, has the potential to create too much conflict, and goes in all sorts of crazy directions. On the left, we are interested in beneficial collective (social) action and maybe we need a vocabulary to describe that. This is not technocratic – cooperative action fits between the market and morality and is, I believe, distinct.

    I’m a big fan of Polanyi and recognise what you say of course. The downsides of the market ‘de-humanisation’ or ‘commodification’ require strong institutions to protect individuals – political action as you say. Such security is also inherent in the NHS and I see this as its primary value rather than social solidarity (which is not unimportant before someone comes back at me…) I just think that because the market has these tendencies, it doesn’t mean that is all it is. It is also an important social institution- one reason why work is beneficial beyond simply the economic benefits.

    I’m still not convinced that the ‘common good’ isn’t masking some ideology or power or interest. If we are just talking democracy then fine. If it’s something more than that my eyebrows start to raise. Collective action is horizontal, the ‘common good’ is rather more vertical in nature. That makes me suspicious- and it’s used rather freely for my liking. Search through all the references to the ‘common good’ in leftist discourse and literature over the last few years and you quickly find an ideological agenda. I don’t have a problem with ideology as long as it’s seen as that and not some elevated and untouchable virtue.

    However, as I say, I’m struck very strongly by the basic point you make.

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