Posts Tagged ‘What money can’t buy’

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

24/06/2012, 07:00:18 AM

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.


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