When a market economy creates a market society

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?

In “What Isn’t for Sale?” (Atlantic, April 2012), Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel makes the central point that, almost without our noticing, “markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before.”

Whether it’s a prison cell upgrade, your doctor’s cell phone number or solo access to the carpool lane, there’s a price for that.  And if you’re looking for a little extra income, how about selling space on your forehead to display commercial advertising, reading a book in an underachieving Dallas schoolroom, or holding a lobbyist’s place in line outside a congressional hearing? There’s a going rate for that.

Sandel argues that, while we all know about examples of the market economy like those above, “the most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms.”

He cites “the  proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals, and prisons,” among many other things, as examples of how much the market values of the last thirty years has come to dominate not just our economy but, much more important, the ways that we value things — and people.

Paying market price for what you want is one thing. It’s a matter of economics. Setting a market price for the more general goods that we have long conceived as constituting the social good is quite another.

These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago.

Sandel asks, “Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?” His answer: “For two reasons. One is about inequality, the other about corruption.”

The case against inequality has been made often, and made well, elsewhere. There are sound economic, political, social, moral, and personal reasons to favour a system that tends more toward equality than toward disparity. (For just two examples, see my reviews of Robert Reich’s Aftershock and Miller and Lapham’s The Self-Made Myth.)

Sandel’s second reason to question the “market society” — something larger and more comprehensive than the “market economy” — is what he calls markets’ “corrosive tendency.”

Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. …

When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way.

To turn some things into commodities is to degrade them in important ways. Do we truly wish to determine the value of “health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on” on the basis of “neutral” economic principles? What does that do to the things we have traditionally valued in different ways?

And, Sandel worries, in an era of market triumphalism, we don’t have the moral and political culture in which we can even have the public debate without which we cannot hope to resolve the issues that underlie these questions. As a result, he writes, “without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.”

Adapted from Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, “What Isn’t for Sale?” is that rare popular periodical piece that retains its philosophical gravitas despite its necessary over-simplification.

Now if we can get everyone to read it …. Maybe we could pay them?

2 thoughts on “When a market economy creates a market society

  1. Was it better in earlier times, and still is in other cultures, to have social values determined in other ways; eg by religious demagogues? The market paradigm has worked to the point that its limitations are evident. The question now is how to determine values that should be outside the market. That gets us into needing to debate rights, the law, and functioning democracy.

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