What Money Can’t Buy | Michael J. Sandel

Summary of: What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets
By: Michael J. Sandel


Welcome to the summary of ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ by Michael J. Sandel. This book sheds light on the pervasive and often unrecognized influence of market thinking in our society. It raises concerns about the consequences of treating a wide range of spheres, including healthcare, security, and even personal relationships, as buyable commodities. The summary aims to highlight the key topics and themes explored in the book and to elucidate the complexities surrounding these issues in an accessible and engaging manner. So, let us embark on a fascinating journey to understand the moral limits of markets and confront the fundamental question of what kind of society we want to live in.

The Pervasive Influence of Market Thinking

The book challenges the unquestioning faith in free markets and points out how their influence has spread into many aspects of our lives. The financial crisis of 2008 raised questions about the dogmatism of mainstream economists who believed in the effectiveness of free markets. However, the debate has only focused on how market thinking has influenced the economy. The book argues that market thinking has permeated many spheres of society like healthcare, education, and security. People can pay for a closer relationship with their doctors or schools can give monetary incentives to students. Private firms run most security details and manage many prisons in the US and UK. The quest for generating wealth has compelled people to accept the expansion of market thinking without realizing its far-reaching consequences. As market thinking seeps into more corners of society, it raises important questions about the kind of society we want to live in.

Market Thinking and Social Justice

Market thinking has led to more inequality in society, degrading exchanges, and a promotion of wrong attitudes. The root cause is the uneven income distribution.

Market thinking has become rampant in society, a trend that should concern us for several reasons. Firstly, it leads to social injustice, corruption of values, and promotes wrong attitudes. The focus of this summary is the impact of market thinking on social justice.

Market thinking has resulted in more inequality in society. When almost everything is up for sale, those with money can purchase the things they want, placing them in an advantageous position compared to the less affluent. For instance, people are already able to jump queues at airport security or amusement parks by paying extra, which highlights inequality.

In a market where everything can be sold, poor individuals may have no choice but to agree to degrading exchanges to satisfy their financial obligations. For example, they might have to “rent out” their foreheads as advertising space to corporations, a situation that is prevalent today. Though they may technically consent to the exchange of their free will, their circumstances, such as poverty, may force them into such positions.

Market thinking has the potential of causing people to auction off their foreheads or even selling their kidneys to wealthy people who require them. However, the primary cause of this trend is the unequal distribution of income.

The Limits of Market Thinking

The expanding influence of market thinking can turn things into mere commodities, leading to moral and social degradation. When we assign monetary value to things that have significance beyond their cost, they often lose their essence and intended values. For example, charging people to watch free Fourth of July fireworks would taint the ideals of independence and freedom the celebration represents. Similarly, while market thinking can be effective in certain cases, it often poses moral dilemmas that cannot be ignored. The case of Project Prevention, a charity that pays drug-addicted women to be sterilized, highlights the moral and social implications of commoditizing certain goods. Such practices create inequality and corrode commonly held values, making them available only to those who can afford them. Ultimately, though market mechanisms offer undeniable benefits, many goods cannot be bought or sold without serious moral considerations.

Negative Effects of Market Thinking

Market thinking changes norms and values and can have negative consequences on attitudes and morals. The introduction of market norms can replace non-market norms and lead to perverse incentives that undermine desired behaviors. Examples include incentivizing children to write thank-you notes for compensation, which teaches them to act based on monetary gain, and fining parents for late pickups, which replaces the non-market norm of being considerate and punctual with a transaction-based incentive. These changes in norms can lead to unexpected outcomes and are often irreversible, highlighting the dangers of market thinking.

The Moral Void in Economic Theories

The expansion of market thinking has given rise to difficult moral questions that economic theories fail to address comprehensively. Generally relying on simplistic assumptions about the world and human tendencies, these theories focus on utilitarian moral theory, which merely aims to satisfy individual desires. Thus, concerns about values, equality, and fairness are discarded. The implication of this one-dimensional approach is becoming more apparent as market thinking continues to spread. This can be seen in situations where people are compelled to volunteer as human guinea pigs for drug safety trials to earn money, leading to serious moral questions regarding survival versus personal safety. The lack of attention to moral questions has left economists with little guidance on building a society that prioritizes ethical values. These concerns highlight the need to understand the economic theories that have propelled the expansion of market thinking and their inherent moral conflicts.

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