Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard ponders What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The following raises the question of what role markets should play in public life and personal relations?
How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by non-market values? We seem to have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.
“A MARKET ECONOMY is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity.
A MARKET SOCIETY is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market..
We live in a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us… It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms.
Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about…
The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction..
We Need A Reasoned Public Debate
To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t..
At a time when political argument consists mainly of shouting matches on cable television, partisan vitriol on talk radio, and ideological food fights on the floor of Congress, it’s hard to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods.
I believe such a debate is possible, but only if we are willing to broaden the terms of our public discourse and grapple more explicitly with competing notions of the good life…
We often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for…the continuing hold of market reasoning.
In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy.
This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal.
But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price:
it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.”