RDN on Michael J Sandel

Posted by RDN under Economic affairs / Mind & body / On books on 1 May 2014

I meant ages ago to write a note about Michael J Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy. I read it with mounting irritation and wanted just to mark people’s cards as best I could as to what to watch out for when they come to it….

The Sandel book along with the Skidelsky family offering, How Much Is Enough, produced mostly favourable reviews (see The Economist here). I very much liked the review of the Sandel by Elaine Sternberg in the IEA’s journal, and what I say below aims to cover slightly different ground to hers.

I think Sandel is irritating because he is sort of disingenuous. He seems to present himself as merely reasonable and as a species of referee, taking people through both sides of any argument. But his book seems to me to be drenched in a conventional liberal view that society has gone to the dogs because people have allowed everything to be monetised. So, he believes, we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

In particular, his book is a long list of things which are now for sale, and which – he suggests – should not be.

So one objection is that most of the problems he has identified, even if they are problems, could be fixed. For example, he is worried that people can now pay for someone else to queue for something such as a seat in a congressional hearing or a play in a park. But we could easily make people prove they are the person who queued: a photo ID, or some such.

One can also object that he takes a loftily-anxious position on matters in which it is perfectly legitimate to see cash change hands. He discusses, for instance, the idea of poor people selling kidneys, or babies, or renting out their wombs, or “buying” immigration status. These are doubtless tricky, and opinions can differ on them: but there is nothing wrong in principle in insisting that people’s freedom to enter into deals does matter. Rich philosophers may not be a good guide as to the value other, poorer, people place on their kidneys. Nor is it obviously wrong for societies to make an entry-charge to economic or life-style immigrants.

Much of the Sandel anxiety is to do with the damage we do ourselves when we monetise things. In other words, there is an inherent wrongness in trading that which should be gifted (or withheld from use by others): there is an unfairness, because the poor are put at a disadvantage, as being forced to sell, or being unable to buy, what is “wrongly” in the market. But there is also a dimension of spiritual impoverishment involved: we expand the scope for trade only at the cost of diminishing the role of love. I think we can unpick all that much more positively.

For a start, the success of industrial society and its markets means that life, in my view, is in important senses far less monetised than it ever has been. I mean that far more people can afford to not sell themselves or their time, or their souls even, than ever before. They are rich enough to have more time (or affluence) for their own activity (which may include trading, if they fancy).  Zero hours contracts notwithstanding, casual, hourly, labour – let alone downright indentures or slavery – are less common than they once were (and very much less common in the “monetised”, industrial modern West than in our rural past or the present in the less-developed world). Insofar as people do sell themselves (their time etc), they are likely to get a better deal, and a wider range of deals, than they ever have before.

I think there is spiritual wealth in the range of choices people can make with their fungible money. Yes, more of life has a price tag: but that actually means that more of life’s great benison is readily available at a fair price in money which has been pleasantly and quickly earned. For a far great proportion of people than has ever been the case before, money issues press less brutally upon them than ever before.

As to the Skidelsky effort. It feels to me that this is the old Graeco/Christian “good life” stuff as endlessly re-iterated now, not least by Oliver James and de Botton and zillions more. I am deeply sceptical of it. There seems to be a fashion for the view that we should eschew greed, vulgarity, excess and materialism and that there is some new horrid capitalist, industrialised, soul-less, neo-liberal engine toward nastiness. But I insist on claiming that there is beauty and spiritual wealth in a full-on, out-and-out, extravagant way of enjoying life. I don’t mind the philosopher understanding the merit of staying in his garden, considering and nurturing the ability to be still and quiet. (It is an excellent solace for those who fail at stuff, as we all must to some degree.) But there is something, too, to be said for Formula One and the West End and clubbing and entering the race to win it.





One comment

  • Written by Geof Jones on 03/06/14 at 8:00 pm:

    Sorry, I began to read this thinking it might interesting. But after 2 paragraphs I decided that it was just right wing tub-thumping. If I want to read that sort of stuff I will pick up the Mail or the Telegraph. What a pity. Too much ego, not enough brains.


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