What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

Michael J. Sandel

Book cover

This was interesting, but I was hoping for something a little deeper from someone who I think is a pretty well-regarded philosopher. The book is about the expansion of market logic to more domains of society, and ideas of why one might support or oppose it. Sandel covers a variety of topics, from corporate naming rights for stadiums to professional line-waiters. He uses a reasonable but simple framework to talk about all of these: there are two arguments against “marketization,” which may apply to different degrees in different cases, and which may or may not outweigh other concerns. First, there is the argument from fairness: allocating goods through a market is not always fair, because while economists tend to take “willingness to pay” as a good proxy for utility, it also smuggles in “ability to pay.” My favorite example of this was the allocation of “Shakespeare in the Park” tickets in New York City. It’s not clear that a market-clearing price would allocate the tickets more efficiently than the current first-come-first-served policy, because “willingness to wait” might be as good a measure of utility as willingness to pay. Second, there is the argument from corruption: allocating certain goods in a market may result in us valuing them “the wrong way.” This last judgment is clearly subjective and Sandel does not hide from that. An obvious example is prostitution.

The book is somewhat thought-provoking, but also seems a bit watered down. I wish Sandel had spent more time giving a deeper philosophical treatment of the issue, and less time multiplying examples.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars