Michael Sandel on the Moral Limits of Markets

It is rare for economists and other champions of the marketplace to step outside of their worldview and see it as an ideological value-system.  How refreshing, then, to see the Wall Street Journal run a favorable review of Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy:  The Moral Limit of Markets.  The review, by Jonathan V. Last of the conservative Weekly Standard, notes that economistic thinking has exploded over the past generation, superimposing market criteria on countless aspects of personal and social life. 

In 1988, only three stadiums had the names of corporate overlords.  Now more than 100 companies have bought “naming rights” to stadiums.  I was shocked to learn that “brand extension” has even reached the level of requiring the announcers for the Arizona Diamondbacks to call home runs “Bank One Boomers.”  The degradation of a venerated national pastime shows how very deeply the tendrils of market thinking have penetrated.

This is only the beginning.  List writes:

"Today you can purchase your way out of waiting in line for rides at many amusement parks. There are express lanes that allow us to buy our way out of traffic. Many schools now 'incentivize' performance, paying students if they read books or do well in school; some schools now sell ads on children's report cards. Cities routinely sell advertising space on public property, ranging from parks and municipal buildings to police cars. In each of these cases, long-held ideas about inherent worth and common ownership have been displaced by the simple morality of the market. There are, Mr. Sandel notes, practical concerns with this shift, affecting matters such as equality: 'The more money can buy, the more affluence (or the lack of it) matters." But the higher concerns are philosophical and spiritual, about how we ought to value what he calls sweetly "the good things in life.'"

I remember the early days of the imperialism of economic thinking in the 1970s.  The corporate world began hyping cost-benefit analysis as a substitute for social policy and environmental, health and safety regulation; soon cost became the criterion for whether workers could be exposed to cancer risks or babies to dangerous toys.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that companies could patent lifeforms, opening the floodgates to the owning of seeds, genes and bio-engineered animal species.  In the mid-1980s, the TV networks were taken over by corporate conglomerates like GE and Westinghouse, and in turn the network news, long considered a public trust, was turned into a ratings-driven entertainment vehicle.  Corporate fficiency was well-served -- and "justified" by the numbers -- but the public good was not.

Looking restrospectively, we can see that the rise of economists like Gary Becker, author of the essay, “The Economic Approach to Human Behavior,” was a bellwether for a new generation of economists who thought that the price system can and should rule the world.  The apotheosis of this thinking may be the 2005 best-seller, Freakonomics, which asserted that “incentives are the cornerstone of modern life” and that “economics is, at root, the study of incentives.”  Economics has declared itself to be a hard science, eclipsing the “soft” social sciences and overriding basic ethical norms.

As the head of the activist group Commercial Alert until several years ago,  my friend Gary Ruskin used to tackle these issues with great gusto.  Rather than just wringing his hand about the over-commercialization of life, Ruskin engineered a variety of creative public interventions.  He shamed school systems that let Channel One, a pseudo-news advertising vehicle, into their classrooms.  He organized to stop the re-naming of subway systems and public parks with corporate names.  He denounced “ambush advertising” in bathroom stalls and at gas pumps, and the use of paid actors in bars and other public spaces to be secret shills in word-of-mouth campaigns for products.  Public Citizen now runs Commercial Alert, and continues to intervene as possible.  Commercial Alert is now fighting advertising in school buses, for example, and the practice of hospitals of giving away infant formula to the mothers of newborns.

Sandel’s book provides a valuable overview of this topic by a highly respected academic.  What is especially needed, however, is a concerted public response to the over-marketization of life.  Legal limits must be set; ethical norms must be reasserted.  The cultural imperialists for intrusive commercialism must be publicly shamed.  Somehow we must confront the pathetic fundamentalism peddled by econo-dwarves, the idea that bean-counting efficiencies will somehow redeem us and bring about a social utopia.  It won’t. 

But this may require us first to escape the gravitational norms of liberalism itself, which is so tightly yoked to market ideals and extreme individualism.  Escaping over-commercialization, in short, may require a greater appreciation of the role of the commons in upholding and protecting inalienable ethical values. 

Update:  The May 2012 issue of Boston Review has a Forum essay by Sandel on the themes of his book, with responses from Richard SennettReason editor Matt WelchAnita AllenDebra Satz, and Herbert Gintis, with Lew Daly, John Tomasi, and others.  Here is the Forum page.