Monday, October 14, 2013


Michael Sandel is a professor of Government at Harvard, and has written extensively about the relationships between ethics, government, economics and justice.  His latest book is What Money Can't Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  His primary assertion is that America no longer operates in a market economy, where capitalistic methods are just the driving force of the economic strata of our lives; but that we now live in a market society, where markets are the primary means for achieving the public good -- and government does not hold the key to prosperity and freedom.  He has many examples of economic principles being inappropriately applied to other elements of the social fabric, such as health, education, and even government itself.

This belief in market triumphalism is playing out in spades these days.  A large segment of the American populace views government as a hindrance to 'the American dream', that ephemeral notion that everyone has an equal opportunity to rise in economic status, and those that cannot succeed just do not have the personal initiative to do so.  Such thinking believes that government only gets in the way and needs to be scaled back -- the 'us and them' that defines 'us' as the people and 'them' as government, as if government were not an element of the social fabric.

Sandel highlights the potential failings of this structure.  Best thing is just to read the book, but I quote some of the summary below.

In addition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live.....Beyond the damage it does to particular goods, commercialism erodes commonality.  The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another.  We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be.  The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but also for those looking down.

Something similar has been happening throughout our society.  At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives.  We live and work and ship and play in different places.  Our children go to different schools.  You might call it the skyboxification of American life.  It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life.  What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life.  For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.
                                Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy