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    Putting a Dollar Sign On Everything Is Really Expensive: A Chat with Michael Sandel

    Written by

    Johannes Niederhauser


    Michael Sandel. (Photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

    Money can be a sneaky thing. Without making too much of a song and dance about it, markets and market thinking have entered spheres of life where they never were before and where, when you think about it, they never really belonged.

    Want to lose a couple of pounds? You can pay for it. Want someone to stand in line for you? You can pay a professional line-stander to do so. Want to chase that indescribable shot of adrenaline you feel when unexpectedly meeting someone you're attracted to for the first time? You can go online and pay for it. Market norms are increasingly turning us into consumers in our approach to ourselves, as well as to the rest of the world around us.  

    Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, has taken it upon himself to challenge the unquestioned faith in markets. His latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, asks the question: “Do we want to live in 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?” 

    I spoke to Sandel, who has been described as the “indispensable voice of reason” by John Gray, about the increasing commodification of life, the loss of sacred institutions, and the dangers of utilitarianism and market reasoning.

    What do you mean by the terms commercialism and marketization? And why should we worry about that?
    Michael Sandel: In recent decades we’ve been in the grip of market faith, which says that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the public good. This assumption has gone largely unquestioned in the past 30 years. As a result from that we have drifted from being a market economy to being a market society.

    Could you explain the difference between the two?
    The difference is that a market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity. A market society, on the other hand, is a place where everything is up for sale. It’s a way of life in which money and market values begin to dominate every aspect of life. From family life and personal relationships to health, education, civic life, and politics. In my book, What Money Can’t Buy, I suggest that we need to step back and ask some fundamental questions about what the role of money and markets should be in a good society.

    How will the perception of future generations change if the world becomes increasingly marketized?
    One severe danger of growing up in a thoroughly marketized society is that our identities as consumers crowd out our identities as citizens. If we think of ourselves only or primarily as consumers, then it becomes more and more difficult to demand a meaningful voice in shaping the collective destiny of society. A society dominated by material values makes us think that freedom consists of buying and selling goods. It substitutes a larger, more demanding idea of freedom for the idea of consumer choice.

    Could you explain why you criticize utilitarianism?
    Utilitarianism assumes that all good things in life can be translated into a single uniform currency or a measure of value, typically money. Many economists these days maintain that economics is a value-neutral science that can explain all of human behavior. This imperialistic ambition of economics reflects the utilitarian idea that all values can be reduced to utility or to money. The danger of this way of thinking is that it flattens the moral discourse and it fails to account for moral and civic goods that simply can’t be translated into monetary terms.

    What would be an example?
    Take friendship. Most people would agree that—even if one wants more friends—it wouldn’t help to buy some. Why not? We all know that a hired friend is not the same as a real friend. We recognize that the money that would buy a friend would dissolve the good that we seek when we aspire to have friends. This tendency of money and market relations to dissolve or crowd out certain important non-market goods can be seen in many areas of social life. The reason we need to worry about that is because, when markets reach into spheres of life that are properly governed by non-market values, they undermine the values that make those relationships important and precious.


    Sandel giving a lecture about what money can't buy.

    In the textbook Principles of Economics, there's an example about a pianist and a poet who live in the same building. Whenever the pianist plays, the poet can't concentrate, so he pays the pianist not to play. When I first read that I remember thinking that being paid doesn't give you the same pleasure as playing the piano—why do economists come up with this idea that money can be a substitute for something you enjoy?
    That’s a great example. It seems very odd to assume that the joys of playing the piano can be bought off by money. This goes back to the utilitarian assumption we were just discussing; if you believe the joy of playing the piano and of improving one’s talent and that that whole set of human experiences can be reduced to money or utility, then their example works. But this is a very narrow and impoverished view of what the joy of making music consists of. I think this example perfectly illustrates the folly and the impossibility of the utilitarian way of thinking.

    The utilitarian way of thinking also ignores new opportunities. Think about it this way: If the pianist and the poet tried to work it out, the poet might find that his or her poetry could actually be improved by engaging with the piano music at least some of the time. But that would be a non-market way of trying to solve the conflict.

    One of the authors of that book, Robert H. Frank, also wrote Economic Naturalist, in which he attempts to show that economics explains almost everything. The assumption that he and many other economists have is that the market is a natural force that must be allowed to act freely so the most efficient outcome isn't disturbed. How did that kind of thinking come about?
    The idea that markets are natural forces rather than social institutions designed to serve certain purposes is mistaken. But it’s a deeply influential mistake. Markets are not ends in themselves and they are not forces of nature. What has happened in recent years is that we have forgotten that markets are tools.

    But couldn’t it be argued that the marketization of everything is inherent to capitalism itself?
    I think it’s wrong to regard markets and capitalism as forces of nature beyond our control. We can and should resist the tendency of markets to infiltrate into every aspect of life. One of my goals in writing What Money Can’t Buy is to remind us that markets are not natural forces, but our tools. That’s why I think it’s so important to have public debates about where markets serve the public good and where they really don’t belong.

    Recent years have seen a rise in lingual conventions—like "the love-market," for example—which already reveals how markets infiltrate once sacred spheres of life.
    Yes, and there is a danger in viewing love and friendship as commodities that can be bought and sold on the market. I think it’s important to preserve a certain distance about the way we think about friendship, dating, and love from market metaphors and a market mentality. Take the example of gift-giving: some economists say that gift-giving is almost always irrational. That is because if the goal of gift-giving is to increase the utility of a friend or a loved one, then giving cash instead of a gift would always be better. Some have even gone so far to calculate what they call the “Deadweight loss of Christmas” associated with gift-giving.

    Sometimes cash is better than a poorly chosen gift. 
    That's true, but suppose your closest friend gave you not a well chosen gift, but the cash equivalent—you would probably experience that as alienating. From the economist’s point of view, cash is always better because then you can just buy whatever increases your utility the most. But this assumes a utilitarian view of friendship, where the only purpose of gift-giving is maximizing the consumer happiness of the recipient. Yet it misses the expressive dimension of gift-giving, which entails the intimacy of a friendship or relationship. The focus on economic efficiency entirely misses out on the important features of gift-giving and friendship.

    Economists don’t seem to understand the sacredness of friendship and gift-giving.
    That’s because from the economistic standpoint nothing is sacred, strictly speaking. Because to call anything sacred is to say that it is priceless. Yet the economistic way of thinking about values assumes that nothing is priceless. It assumes that everything has its price.

    You argue that public discourse should focus more on spiritual content. How has market reasoning crowded out that content from the public?
    Well, I think we have to begin by recognizing the limitation of money and markets in capturing the meaning of everything that matters to us. That is the first step toward the kind of moral, civic, and spiritual engagement that market thinking misses. A part of the appeal of market thinking is that it seems to spear into us the need to engage in debates about controversial ethical and spiritual questions. Market relations are defined by voluntary exchanges between persons, and the assumption is that only the parties to the deal define the values of the things being exchanged. Markets seem to provide us with a way of outsourcing our moral judgments to a neutral mechanism. But I think this is a mistake.

    Why?
    Markets are not morally neutral. Sometimes buying and selling certain goods may change their meaning. Take this example: In Israel they have an annual donation day where students go from door to door to collect donations. One year economists set up an experiment—they divided the students into three groups. The first group was given a speech about the importance of the charities being supported and they were sent on their way. The second group was given the same speech, but they were additionally offered a one percent commission. The third group was offered a ten percent commission of the funds collected.

    The result was that the first group that worked entirely without pay raised the most money. This reveals that putting a price on an activity such as this, where the motivation is truly altruistic and to do good, turns it into a kind of job and makes it less appealing than a civic, charitable activity. Of course, this doesn’t happen all of the time, but there are many cases where it does. This suggests that, before we introduce market mechanisms, we need to ask: What non-market values and norms may be diminished or eroded by the introduction of money and market thinking?

    How can people be made aware of where market thinking has no place?
    I think we need to rewrite the economics textbooks, for a start. In your example of the pianist and the poet, the textbook should provide a more profound discussion of further solutions instead of just paying off the pianist. It should mention the non-market values that are at stake if one chooses the market solution. I think it’s a mistake that economics presents itself as a value-neutral science of human behavior. The founders of classical economics, like Adam Smith, recognized that economics is a branch of moral and political philosophy. We need to get back to that conception of economics and recognize that economics is inseparable from moral and political questions.

    Great. Thanks, Michael.

    Follow Johannes on Twitter: @JohnVouloir

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    This story originally appeared at VICE.

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