on May 21, 2012
Michael Sandel is one of the most well-known intellectuals in the United States today. He is fresh off the well-deserved success of his book _Justice_ (sure to become a classic in political philosophy). His latest book _What Money Can't Buy_ is actually quite connected to his previous book _Justice_. In short, whereas in _Justice_ Sandel argues secular citizens in modern societies have a personal responsibility and social obligation to think through moral issues and to carefully and thoughtfully arrive at the best judgment of justice in any personal circumstance or social situation, in _What Money Can't Buy_ Sandel convincingly argues _and_ demonstrates how market relations impede efforts to arrive at the best judgment of justice and morality. In other words, the overarching argument of _What Money Can't Buy_ is that markets often corrupt our _judgment_ of justice and our _doing_ of good action.
It is very important here to underscores the qualifier "markets often", because Sandel does not offer any blanket condemnation of markets, but heeds warning to "the moral limits of markets." Markets certainly help accomplish lots of good, but at other times tend to undermine moral behavior and generate moral corruption (e.g. pp. 34-5). According to Sandel this corruptive effect of markets is not external to markets, but a deep part of what constitutes "market relationships" (e.g. buying and selling commodities and services, in contrast to non-market relationships, e.g. family, friendships, non-monetary reciprocal actions, etc.).
What is most impressive about Sandel's style is how non-polemic he is throughout. Indeed in this book he is often non-philosophical, or at least he stops short of moral philosophy. Sandel presents the reader with dozens and dozens of moral dilemmas, and instead of offering moral reasoning, he attempts to unfold the logic of why we sense a dilemma at all.
For example, suppose a wealthy hiker decides it is worth the $100 fine to litter in the Grand Canyon (p. 65) why would most of us still find this offensive? Because, says Sandel the wealthy hiker "has failed to appreciate [the Grand Canyon] in an appropriate way." Thus, when we get to other circumstances, for example, China's one-child policy, tradable pollution permits, etc., etc., etc. are fines, or the purchase of pollution rights, treating the object in the right way, or have we moved beyond the ability of markets to tackle the question and solve the problem?
The pinnacle of Sandel's book is his discussion and presentation of life insurance. Sandel tells his reader about Michael Rice, a 48-year-old employee of Walmart. While helping a customer carry a television set to her care, Rice collapsed and died of a heart attack. An insurance policy had been taken out with a $300,000 payout to the beneficiary. The purchaser and beneficiary was not Rice's family, but his employer Walmart. Neither Rice nor his family had known of this insurance policy taken out by Walmart, and his family was deeply offended and emotional hurt by the policy and benefit (p. 131ff). Rice's family sued, and the lawsuit revealed Walmart had hundreds of thousands of such ("janitors insurance") policies; and so do 10,000s of other companies. It is a type of investment, or gamble on how long employees will live.
Insurance polices also exist for people dying of a terminal illness (such as aids, cancer, etc.), or "viaticals" (pp. 136 - 41). "Unlike janitors insurance, the viatical business serves a clear social good - financing the final days of people with terminal illnesses. [...] The moral problem with viaticals is not that they lack consent. It's that they are wagers on death that give investors a rooting interest in the prompt passing of the people whose polices they buy" (pp. 138 - 9). A viatical company President shockingly captures the moral dilemma when he says "There have been some phenomenal returns, and there have been some horror stories where people live longer" (p. 137).
The question here is much like our wealthy hiker, are we (as a society of civilized citizens) treating the Grand Canyon and people dying of a terminal illness in the "appropriate ways." Should institutions exist whereby no one need to profit so that terminal ill people have funds for dying?
Sandel's helps us think about the morality of selling the naming rights of buildings, stadiums, etc. (p. 163ff); advertising on individual person's bodies (p. 4) advertising in public schools, on Channel One, and on public school buses (pp. 196 - 201). In his dozens and dozens of moral dilemmas, Sandel _demonstrates_ there is a limit to what we can expect markets to achieve for us, and there seems to be a wide and deep role for philosophy to contribute to social well-being.
Finally, there has been wide criticism of this book for being superficial. There is some warrant to this criticism, but it is warrant that completely misses the mark. Sandel knows his audience, but more importantly he knows his purpose. Sandel's book appears to be written for a popular audience, in part this is true. However, it seems more accurate to say Sandel's intended audience is economists and those who teach economics, but written in such a way that a popular audience can listen in. Sandel's purpose is quite simple, markets and the `science of economics' rarely, if ever, are independent of moral philosophy (indeed the first economists, including Adam Smith, were moral philosophers). In this sense this book is an immanent critique of economic reasoning and the shallowness and absence of moral reasoning in economic textbooks.
In this sense, this book is deeply philosophical, indeed sophisticated philosophy of immanent critique. Immanent critique employs the logic and language of its subject and demonstrates its limitations and contradictions. Thus, this book is riddled with economic language and lingo. The book is a triumph in immanent critique of economics as a discipline; and a successful and important follow-up to Sandel's _Justice_. If this book is a successful work of immanent critique, hopefully Sandel will put forth the effort to argue for the construction of institutions and incentives to supersede the moral limitations of markets.