REVIEW: "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets" -- In the end, I don't quite buy it

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michael Sandel is one of my favorite public philosophers. Not because I always agree with him―and at many places in this book, I didn't―but because he usually makes his point plainly and with a minimum of emotive bluster. Plus he's quite a good orator, so that's a bonus for his lectures and audiobooks.

After finishing Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do?, a more generic overview of the main philosophical strands in Western ethical thought, I was eager to start on this other book for a popular audience. Plus the subtitle is tantalizing.

Sandel's quasi-contention in What Money Can't Buy is that setting up market structures over a previously non-market sector of public life somehow "degrades," morally, that sector. I say "quasi" because for most of the book he never comes outright to say that this is his assertion, just that it's an idea to be considered. Of course this is, more or less, a rhetorical pretense: but Sandel's writing (and narration, in the Audible version) is genial enough that one mostly forgets it.


Sandel illustrates the encroaching "market society" through a series of anecdotes and examples, from jump-the-queue markets to organ-donor markets, financial incentives to data-driven baseball. His intro class on moral philosophy at Harvard is wildly popular and it's easy to see why, as all these examples are tantalizing and almost immediately invoke some sort of moral sentiment.

That said, some of Sandel's arguments against marketization seem almost as bizarre as the marketization itself. For example, he says that waiting in a queue (as opposed to paying extra to jump the queue) is not only democratic, but perhaps somehow virtuous? Except that queues suck. Better to have proper queuing algorithms to minimize waiting times for everyone―something that Disney Parks do now, unless I'm mistaken. Plus, he seems just as serious when talking about amusement-park queues as about queues to sit in on Congressional hearings, which I find hard to take seriously.

Perhaps the most bizarre, and objectionable, argument comes when Sandel talks about a program to offer birth control options and a financial payment to drug-addicted women. If in any case "birth control" means "sterilization," that's certainly morally questionable. But if we're talking about IUDs, then Sandel's suggestion that such a financial inducement degrades a woman's "capacity for childbearing," then I'm sorry, but it just smells like essentialist bullshit. It's not like the women necessarily want to have children (and the women in the anecdote are sometimes almost chronically pregnant), and the woman who runs this program has intimate knowledge of what babies born to drug-addicted mothers go through, having adopted and raised several herself. I think reducing the number of drug-addicted children born into the world is better than preserving the "childbearing essence" of drug-addicted women, especially if it's temporary and voluntary.

Finally, it's not at all clear to what extent Sandel's anecdotes are representative of an overall trend. One certainly does get the sense that market-like values are on the rise among certain leaders and thinkers in society (the "gig economy," anyone?) but this book was written four years ago and as far as I'm aware most of the anecdotes are still obscure. That said, modern society is fragmented enough that it's probably just a case of my inability to be everywhere at once.

Overall, I'd say this is a worthwhile book to read, perhaps to check out from the library. Sandel certainly gives food for thought. It might be even more interesting when paired with a libertarian answer to it: Markets Without Limits, by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, as I intend to do.

View all my reviews