On January 15, Michael Sandel presented a lecture (as part of the Valley Town Hall series) titled "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets." As a political philosopher, he asks a simple question: "What is the right thing to do?" Sandel, an author and professor at Harvard, teaches "Justice," the most sought-after class on campus by undergrads.
Sandel is deeply concerned about the need for a new model of political debate, saying that politics has become the handmaid of economics rather than a forum for democracy. He suggests that we need to elevate public discourse through practices like town hall meetings, forums and discussions, replacing debates that have degenerated into policy platforms.
Furthermore, Sandel believes it is a mistake to dismiss moral, ethical and faith perspectives from public discourse. Without these considerations, politics, economics and society in general devolve into a set of managerial and technical practices, devoid of relational meaning. A major problem of the modern project is to assume that market forces are amoral or value neutral.
What is the place of money in a culture? asks Sandel. What thnigs should have monetary value and what things are appropriate to be bought and sold? Should non-commodities carry a price? He gave several examples. If you don't want to stand in line for hours (or days) to purchase tickets for popular events like a concert, the Super Bowl or a congressional hearing, you can pay someone to do it for you (there are websites for that). Does contracting another human being to take your place have real value? Or, what about buying a wedding toast? (Yup, there's a website for that too.) Would the groom value it more or less if he knew the best man had purchased an eloquent toast rather than taking time to craft it on his own? Or, how about buying a friend or a date? What about paying your kids for their grades or for the books they've read?
Sandel says that we have moved from being a "market economy" to a "market society." In a market economy, goods and services can be bought, sold and traded. Commodities have real value and that value may increase or decrease appropriately. But in a market society, everything is up for sale—politics, war, family, relationships, human life, etc. We are now assigning monetary value to all sorts of intangible qualities of life. This, in turn, creates a disparity in society.
The dangers of a market society are many, suggests Sandel. The more things money can buy, the more affluence impacts our culture. It is now possible to buy safe neighborhoods, human resources, health care, and political favor. When monetary value is associated with such non-commodities, the values of society change. Hence, market prices impact societal values.
Two questions that we need to ask more often (but are never asked if market forces are assumed to be amoral):
- How will a society's values and morals be shaped and altered when monetary value is assigned to anything?
- Just because money can buy a thing, should it?
Sandel asserts that it is society itself that should agree on the value of things, and especially of intangibles. This is not a process that should be left to the whims of the political and economic elite. Democracy, in its truest form, calls for honest, open public discourse (something which we currently know very little about).
In conclusion, Sandel offered two lessons that should be learned.
- Economics is not value neutral. Money can and will change the nature of relationships as value is assigned to qualities of life. As we commodify and objectify every facet of modern society, we must ask what impact this is having on our collective norms and values. (For a great illustration of this, see the NYT article “For the Love of Money,” a testimonial of a “wealth addict” who formerly worked on Wall Street.)
- We must alter the way we do public discourse. What is now called debate has become narrow and hollow. Appropriate public discourse is the only way to determine where and when markets belong, and such discourse must reengage morality, ethics and faith.
Sandel gave one final example to illustrate the shift from a market economy to a market society. When he was a kid he loved to go watch Major League Baseball games. Every once in a while his family would splurge and purchase tickets for a sky box. The difference in price between a sky box and a regular seat was a mere $1.50. Back then, sky boxes were attainable for the entire population. However, today sky boxes are hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more than average seats, being completely unreachable to the average ticket buyer (for many people, even average seats are too costly). The value has changed because an inflated, unrealistic price has been assigned to an intangible feature. This "sky boxification" of society is dangerous to democracy, creates an artificial market economy and continues to stratify the classes.
After a solid hour and a half of engaging content and very interactive dialogue, Sandel gave us his parting thought: "Do we want to live in a society where everything is for sale?"
I'll offer some reasons why I think this is an important question for the church in a coming blog post.