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Morality and Markets

Morality and Markets

Michael Sandel is today’s rockstar political philosopher. A Harvard professor, he lectures widely on ethics and morality and writes influential books. His 2009 “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” was a worldwide top seller; his new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets,” promises to be the same. Sandel questions the assumption that free markets alone should be the primary instrument for achieving the public good, and he asks us to do the same:

This is a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

The difference is this: 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. (from an excerpt of his book published by The Atlantic)

Sandel suggests that putting market prices on some goods and services increases consumption by displacing moral considerations. As an example, he cites day care parents whose tardiness in retrieving their children went up after the center put money tags on violating time limits. Before the fine, parents felt uncomfortable imposing on a teacher’s time by keeping her after-hours. After the charges were imposed, parents came late more often but with fewer apologies since they paid the school for causing teacher inconvenience. Conceptually, the idea extends to pollution permits. Government puts a price on unnecessary pollution, and the polluter then finesses any moral considerations by paying the set price and obeying the law.

Sandel’s insights on ethics and morality are quite valuable, but experience tells me that morality alone is a weak constraint against fowling our common air, water and land where dumping serves individual convenience. As one example, a man emailed that he supported my petition for a carbon tax, not because it would reduce pollution, but because higher gasoline prices would mean fewer poor people driving and more road room for him, a rich man who didn’t care about paying more for gas. His effortless, amoral refusal to consider the common good saddened me, and he is not alone. The assumption that anything’s ok if it’s legal and you pay the price is embedded in our system. Sandel sees markets this way:

In our society especially, markets seem to embody a certain idea of freedom. It’s a narrow, limited, impoverished idea of freedom — the freedom to buy and trade goods, a consumerist idea of freedom. And it’s deeply held. The allure of that narrow vision of freedom is not something to be underestimated. That is why it’s hard to break the thrall of markets and market thinking. (from The Huffington Post article on Sandel’s book)

It may be a sign of the times that Sandel’s ethics lectures are Harvard undergraduates’ most popular course. When I was there, and for years afterwards, Economics I was the unquestioned leader.

Image by Fletcher6 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons


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