Dewey Decimal Project: 174 SAN What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets

I’m not a strong believer in the absolute value of capitalism. It is a good generator of wealth, but that assumes that wealth is an end worth pursuing for its own sake. It also has the problem of not necessarily distributing the generated wealth in a fair or equitable way. In this book, Sandel offers another critique of market-based capitalism: the market mindset can be inherently corrupting. For example, he points out:

The corrosive effect of market relations is sometimes strong enough to override the price effect: offering a financial incentive to accept a hazardous facility, or go door-to-door collecting charity, or show up on time reduced rather than increased people’s willingness to do so.

While he relies a bit too much on some of his examples, over-repeating the case, he does provide a good argument for the corrupting nature of market relations as a means of organizing human behavior.

Another, damning critique Sandel provides is that the basis of market-based thinking is centered on the concept of scarcity, but that concept does not necessarily apply to all spheres:

“If we economists do [our] business well,” Robertson concludes, “we can, I believe, contribute mightily to the economizing… of that scarce resource Love,” the “most precious thing in the world.”

To those not steeped in economics, this way of thinking about the generous virtues is strange, even far-fetched. It ignores the possibility that our capacity for love and benevolence is not depleted with use,but enlarged with practice.

Overall, I found this to be a satisfying critique of how market thinking has influenced and sullied culture, especially American culture. As we enter eras in which scarcity becomes a non-concern in other less ephemeral areas (the effective marginal cost of zero to duplicate data being a key example), this critique grows in importance making this a critical read for anyone thinking about economic and social policy.

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