Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy is noteworthy in part for the teacherly technique employed. Sandel develops his thesis anecdotally rather than analytically. This procedure appears designed to force readers to experience a series of situations in which market values have entered into our lives in ways that many people will find morally unacceptable. His examples range from having advertisements tattooed on one’s forehead to paying place holders to save one from having to stand for hours in long lines to the selling of human organs.
There is a clear analytical claim made near the beginning of the book, however. On page 10 Sandel notes that we have never had a proper debate about the relations among moral, political, and economic issues involving markets. He continues: “As a result, without quite realizing it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” The italics are Sandel’s—the only authorial italics in the book—but he blurs the force of his point by using the unqualified “we” as his subject. His subject is not a personal “we” but “we” as an organized society. The point is that we have drifted from being a society having a market economy to being a market society.
This distinction is of immense importance. A society “having a market economy” is a situation in which some overarching value system manages relations among people (“society”) and uses a market economy as a tool to manage economic relations. “The market” is not an autonomous system that runs itself but a subordinate system managed by a combination of public and private managers. Those managers, in theory, would guide the economy according to the value system organizing social relationships. For the United States that value system is summarized in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, beginning with the “self-evident truth” that “all [people] are created equal.” The Declaration continues to assert the existence of “unalienable” human rights and the role of government to “secure those rights,” exercising powers legitimized by “the consent of the governed.”
A “market society,” on the other hand, is a situation in which market forces embody both the overarching value system and the autonomous power to direct not only all economic functions but also all relations among people. Free market ideology is an anarchistic fantasy in which the Market is the dominant legitimizing force, providing the ultimate sanction for all relationships—economic, political, institutional, personal. It supplants the roles of government, religion, education, family, and tradition. It destroys the very idea of a legitimate public realm. It inexorably monetizes more and more of life. Money increasingly serves as the sole value on which all choices are based.
And that is why the individual examples raised by Sandel are so disquieting: they reveal how markets are inexorably delegitimizing all values but money.