A market society

Rob Reich’s review of Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What money can’t buy: The moral limits of markets, on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website is well worth a read. I love Michael Sandel’s work and by the sounds of Reich’s review it should be a good read with plenty of real-world case studies to stimulate thinking around the big question he is essentially raising: What shouldn’t money buy? A very poignant question for both state and society, especially if Sandel is right to suggest that we have “drifted from having a market economy to being a market society”

Reich writes that Sandel is not arguing against markets per se: “Rather, he proposes that markets should have limits. He identifies two moral concerns. First, when markets exist everywhere, he argues, we need to worry more about inequality. If money can buy more and more, including political influence and better health care and education, then having money matters more and more. Second, making certain goods into commodities can corrupt the very value of these goods; market norms can crowd out valuable non-market behavior.”

With regards the first argument few would disagree with a serious concern about markets and fairness. There was open (nervous) talk at Davos about the future consequences, for both state legitimacy and society well-being, of global wealth monopolised in the hands of the global winners. However the second argument about commodification is a bit more contentious.

Reich makes an interesting point about this: “Sandel could have conveyed a more sophisticated view about markets. Not all markets and marketplace exchanges are alike, or have the potential to corrupt valuable non-market norms. Take for instance the simple distinction, familiar to any reader of SSIR, between goods offered for sale by for-profit versus nonprofit organizations. Commodification looks different if the marketplace is populated by nonprofit organizations, but this distinction is lost in Sandel’s undifferentiated treatment of markets”

Building on this, one can also make an argument that markets which encourage greater physical connections, interactions and exchanges – regardless of whether profit is the underlining motive – can in itself strengthen society. Remember a stronger society is created by increasing the quantity and quality of social bonds and relationships within communities. Surely it is better for a person to turn off the TV and walk down to the local mall where they will interact with people in stores who are selling their goods for profit, rather than remain sitting isolated in front of the TV for the day in order to abstain from rampant market consumerism? Note, I pose this as a provocative question rather than a statement of fact!

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