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The Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing,
This review is from: What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Hardcover)
In this fairly short book, Sandel brings back some sanity to a world that, at times, seems to have sold its soul to 'The Market'.
It is not a rant or a polemic. It is a careful and thoughtful analysis of the encroachment of economics, market ideas and commodification into areas previous considered to be parts of an ethical and public realm.
As in his previous book, 'Justice', Sandel fills the pages with real, actual examples. From these, he draws out what he considers to be the basic principles underlying the pressure to 'commercialise' and the public harm that ensues. This he sees as being essentially either corruption or unfairness. As he says (and it is worth quoting at length):
'The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest. A peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea to feed his starving family, but his agreement may not be really voluntary. He may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.
The corruption objection is different. It points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold.' (P111)
From these two objections, Sandel looks at, for example, blood donation in the US and the UK. In the US, blood is bought and sold, in the UK it is voluntarily donated. You might say that being able to sell your blood is your choice, but in reality, what happens is that there is, in the US, a movement of blood from the poorest to the richest. In fact, it turns out that the market is, in this case, far from being the most 'efficient' mechanism for providing a need - the UK system is actually more efficient. But it is not just a question of efficiency:
'Economists often assume that markets do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark on social norms. Often, market incentives erode or crowd out nonmarket incentives.' (P64)
The argument for efficiency it seems, is the Holy Grail of economists. They seem to believe that 'economics is a value-free science independent of moral and political philosophy' (P88). This is beautifully but depressingly illustrated by the problems economists face when trying to explain 'gifts' - hugely inefficient, you are always better off giving cash. Economics cannot explain the immaterial aspects of gift-giving.
By putting a price on everything, by overruling objections of unfairness and corruption, the public sphere, the sense of 'we're all in this together' is increasingly eroded. Privileged queue jumping at airports, corporate suites at football grounds, 'gated' communities - all help to stratify a community, encouraging a 'them and us' attitude between the well-off and those not so fortunate.
It seems that economists, with few exceptions, see human being as, in Adam Curtis' phrase, 'lonely robots'. Once you have let market forces in, it is extremely difficult to get them out again, as Colin Crouch also noted, but from a somewhat different perspective. The effects of the resulting erosion of civic duty, public service and the common good are, I would say, plain to see.
As Cyndi Lauper once sang - 'Money Changes Everything'.