Author Michael Sandel’s new book What Money Can’t Buy is troubling in the best sense of the word—it “troubles” the complacency with which Americans have received the rapid encroachment of the market into private life. In the post-Freakonomics world, economics has expanded exponentially, not only into the global market but into areas of life not previously governed by market forces.

In his book, Sandel explains in both intellectual and historical  terms how expansionist ideas of the role of economics coincided with the Reaganite elevation of lassiez-faire principles into something like a religion. Sandel frames the issues he finds problematic and shows how “intrinsic values” such as the love of learning for its own sake, can be threatened when market forces are applied to non-market spheres usually governed by intrinsic moral values. For example, teachers or parents try to incentivize students by bribing them to do better in school or and public schools seek out corporate sponsors to make up the difference due to budget cuts.

Sandel’s book provides a framework that challenges readers to see the world differently. This shift is a bit like the moment in the cult classic They Live (see Jonathan Lethem’s book-length criticism of the film) when the hero puts on a pair of bodacious ray-ban sunglasses and suddenly sees billboards advertising sunny vacations in fact read “OBEY.” What Money Can’t Buy identifies a few of the many areas where market encroachment is problematic (paying to kill an endangered rhino, paying for the right to pollute, branded education) and equips readers with the questions that, Sandel hopes, will complicate the public debate about what money should or shouldn’t buy.

Sandel is a professor at Harvard and his course “Justice” is one of the most widely attended in that school’s history (he has taught it to over 15,000 students). “Justice” is popular in part because of Sandel’s discussion-based, Socratic teaching style.One of these courses was recorded and incorporated into a PBS documentary. His previous book, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?” (FSG, 2009) expands on the core of his class. It’s the same spirit of engaging discussion informs What Money Can’t Buy? Sandel is taking his classroom debate to the streets.

Sandel jumps in to answer questions readily, as though used to being put on the spot, and his voice is roughened, as though from years of inciting debate with a room full of students.

I spoke to Sandel a few days before What Money Can’t Buy was to be published by FSG.

Tana Wojczuk for Guernica

Guernica: You say that part of the goal of the book is to reintroduce moral philosophy into conversations about market forces. Can you encapsulate why this is necessary, and what’s so urgent about this now?

Michael Sandel: Over the past three decades, markets and market thinking have been reaching into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms, and we haven’t really debated this. As a result, we’ve drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society.

My goal is first of all to promote a public debate about where markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong… And beyond that, I hope that the book does convey a critical stance, broadly speaking, toward a society where everything could be up for sale.

By a market society, I mean a place where market values and market relations increasingly govern the whole of life where everything is up for sale—family life, personal relations, health, education, civic life. What the book suggests is that we need to debate where markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong.

Guernica: The book cites some resistance from economists about getting involved with moral questions. Has this always been the case? Is this endemic to the discipline?

Michael Sandel: Well, most economics that is taught in college and universities today projects itself as a value-neutral science. This claim has always been open to question, but I think it’s especially in doubt today.

Over the last three decades economics has enlarged its ambition and subject matter. If you look at the economic textbook of Paul Samuelson, which was the most influential economic textbook in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, he defined economics by its subject matter—inflation, unemployment, foreign trade, the money supply, what made economies grow. Questions like that. Today if you look at most economic textbooks, economics is not defined by subject matter. It’s presented as a science of social choice that applies not only to material goods—not only to flat-screen televisions—but to every decision we make, whether it’s to get married, or to stay married, whether to have children and how to educate those children, or how to look after our health. Economics has increasingly become the science of human behavior in general, and it’s all the more unlikely to think that it can possibly be value-free—and, in fact, it isn’t. Economics rests on un-argued assumptions that need to be examined.

I think one of the effects of the market triumphalism of the last three decades is that our politics has been emptied out of substantive moral discourse, and as a result democratic politics is increasingly unsatisfying.

Guernica: You write in the introduction that we didn’t arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. Then later you talk about the economists who started leading us down this path. So how do those two things connect? Isn’t saying we didn’t make choices letting us or the economists who lead us here off the hook?

Michael Sandel: I talk about two tendencies—one in the academy, the other in the world. Within the academy, influential economists such as Gary Becker and Richard Posner, the founder of the law and economics movement–both at the University of Chicago–argued that economics models can be used to explain human behavior in all domains of life. This is a bold and ambitious attempt to extend the reach of economic models.

At the same time that economics was enlarging its ambition, there were changes in the world in the role that markets play in our everyday lives. This goes back to the early 1980s with the election of [Margaret] Thatcher and Ronald Reagan but its continued through the years when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair came into office. I think the end of the Cold War encouraged a sense of market triumphalism, an assumption that our system was the only system left standing. And the assumption was that there was only one kind of capitalism, only one way of organizing a market economy, when in fact there are a great many ways of embedding markets and market mechanisms in social life, and democratic life. And so these two developments over the past three decades, within the economics profession and in the world at large, together fueled the drift toward a market society.

Today, we confront an economy that is global in scope, and we are struggling to find a way to have a serious democratic debate about self-governance and the meaning of the common good.

Guernica: You write that “conceiving economics as a study of incentives does more than extend the reach of economics into everyday life. It also casts the economist in the activists role.” I have a feeling you mean activist in a more broad sense than simply the liberal sense, but can you elaborate on what that means?

Michael Sandel: If you go back to Adam Smith, you find the idea that markets and market forces operate as an invisible hand. This is the traditional laissez-faire market idea. But today, when economics is increasingly defined as the science of incentive, it becomes clear that the use of incentives involves quite active intervention, either by an economist or a policy maker, in using financial inducements to motivate behavior. In fact, so much though that we now almost take for granted that incentives are central to the subject of economics.

Actually, even the language of incentives is relatively new. The classical economists didn’t use the term. You didn’t find it in Adam Smith. In fact, you don’t even find it in broad use among economists until after the Second World War. Recently we’ve heard a lot of talk of incentivizing. This is a verb that—although we hear it often from corporate executives and government officials and politicians and editorial writers—arises only in the 1990s. In the course of writing the book, I searched books and newspapers, and incentivize only comes in the 1990s and 2000s.

What it reflects is the trend toward using financial inducements to motivate a wide range of human activity, like paying school children to do well on standardized tests. In Dallas, they had an experiment where they paid third graders two dollars for each book they read. Also, health incentives—I call them health bribes—have become a familiar tool for trying to get people to look after their health to lose weight or to quit smoking or to take their prescribed medications. So the use of financial incentives as a tool to motivate behavior has proliferated in the last two or three decades.

Guernica: Are there other incentives being studied within economics? For example, if you get up and exercise in the morning, you reward yourself with a bigger breakfast or eating something that you want to eat—self-bribery, in a sense.

Michael Sandel: I see. Yes. I think there is a difference between the effects of financial incentives and forces of motivation that are more intrinsic to the activity. Rather than paying each individual student based on his or her score on a standardized test, you can imagine an alternative, such as motivating students by offering to reward the entire class—let’s say, at the end of the semester— by going on a field trip to the zoo or museum. This kind of motivation (I mean the field trip example) is different from paying individual students cash, because the field trip reward is more in line with the purpose of the activity—namely, education.

I think the reason we might hesitate to pay cash to students for doing well on tests or getting good grades or reading books is that we sense that the monetary payment is an extrinsic reward. It’s not related to the fundamental purpose, which, after all, is not just to get good grades, or to read more books. It’s ultimately the purpose of education to cultivate the love of learning for its own sake. So the rewards that are more closely connected with that intrinsic purpose are more appropriate because they’re more in line with the goal of the activity, the attitudes and norms that we’re trying to inculcate. One of the worries about using cash payments is that the money may erode, or you can crowd out the attitudes and norms—in this case the love of learning—that we want to instill.

Guernica: You also mention an op-ed in which you do sort of come down a little more on one side of an issue in this case paying to pollute and were chastised for it by other economists. You seem to stay away from taking sides in this book. Did that op-ed experience scare you away from that?

Michael Sandel: I don’t in each and every case make a definitive judgment, but that’s not my goal. My goal is first of all to promote a public debate about where markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong. That’s my first goal. And beyond that, I hope that the book does convey a critical stance, broadly speaking, toward a society where everything could be up for sale. I find that a troubling tendency, even though I want to present the examples and the arguments in a way that invites people to think for themselves about these questions, many of which pose fascinating and difficult moral dilemmas about where markets belong and where they don’t.

Guernica: I wonder where the next step of this conversation is going to take place. Do you think as a society we’re averse to talking about this connection, the moral implications of economics?

Michael Sandel: I think we do hesitate as a society to debate questions such as these and I think that’s for two reasons. First, we take markets and market values for granted to such a degree that we sometimes don’t even notice the dilemmas which derive from markets. One aim of the book is to invite us to take notice of the extent to which market values and market thinking have become pervasive in our everyday lives.

But I think a second obstacle to a morally robust debate about the limits of money and markets in our society is that such a debate would require us to reason together in public about some big and controversial ethical questions that touch on moral and sometimes spiritual values about the meaning of goods, where people disagree very often, whether we’re talking about the meaning of teaching and learning or of health or of procreation, family life, civic duties and obligations, how properly to value nature and the environment. These all raise big ethical questions on which we disagree. And I think we have a tendency to shy away from public debate that touch on questions on the good life and the meaning of goods and how to value various goods and social practices such as these. We need to overcome that reluctance, if we’re to improve the state of our public discourse.

One of the reasons that public discourse is impoverished today is that it doesn’t address some of the biggest moral questions our society faces, and one of the reasons it doesn’t is we sometimes think we should ask citizens to leave their moral and spiritual convictions outside when they enter the public sphere. So one goal of the book is to couch public debate about the moral limits of the role of markets in our society. Another goal is to encourage a kind of public debate that welcomes moral and spiritual convictions and arguments whatever their sources and that encourages us to lift up our public discourse by engaging more directly with the big questions that people care about that we too rarely debate in public. I think one of the effects of the market triumphalism of the last three decades is that our politics has been emptied out of substantive moral discourse, and as a result democratic politics is increasingly unsatisfying. Not only in this country, but in many democratic countries, democratic politics is increasingly about narrow managerial, technocratic concerns rather than with larger questions of ethics and justice and the meaning of the common good. So one aim of the book is to contribute to a morally more robust democratic discourse.

Guernica: I’d like to introduce a Louis Brandeis quote into the discussion: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Is it part of the economist’s role to promote social utility and a healthy market? And does that correlate with promoting democracy in some way?

Michael Sandel: There’s no necessary connection between maximizing social utility or economic wealth and creating a flourishing democracy. The first does not guarantee the second. The only way to create a flourishing democracy is to find ways to reason together about the big questions, including hard questions about justice and the common good, to reason together about these questions so that we as citizens can decide how to shape the forces that govern our lives. This I think was Louis Brandeis’s idea of democracy.

In the early part of the twentieth century, when Brandeis wrote, there was a lively debate about how democratic institutions could make corporations and banks and powerful economic institutions accountable to the democracy. And different political leaders and political parties had different views on how to achieve that. This was back in the day of Brandeis and Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. There was a lively debate about how to extend democratic control over an economy that could become national in scope with big economic institutions.

Today, we confront an economy that is global in scope, and we are struggling to find a way to have a serious democratic debate about self-governance and the meaning of the common good. So in many ways I think we have a lot to learn from Brandeis’s way of thinking about democracy.

Tana Wojczuk

Tana Wojczuk’s essays and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Tin House, Bomb, Paste, Lapham’s Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a lecturer in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University.

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3 Comments on “Michael Sandel: What Money Can’t Buy

  1. Given the topic, this is unfortunate: “‘Justice’ is one of the most widely attended in that school’s history (he has taught it to over 15,000 students).” Talk about the way that the market has transformed our metaphors. Sounds like it is describing the opening weekend gross for The Avengers.

  2. Good interview, I’m looking forward to reading the book. While I don’t fully agree that “our politics has been emptied out of substantive moral discourse” I agree that we could use more of it.

    I am a big believer in markets and the efficiencies they can bring, however they are not one-size-fits-all miracle solution. Even in econ 101 you learn that markets are challenged when externalities are not properly accounted for. I hope that this book will dig in deeper and provide some food for thought.

  3. @Gigio Sakota: Yes, you are right about externalities. But, Sandel is trying to make a broader point about the moral limits of economics. I don’t think he finds a problem with a “market economy” as much as he does with a “market society”.

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