What Money Can’t Buy – the moral limits of markets by Michael Sandel

I was given this book after hearing Professor Sandel doing a series on BBC Radio where he led philosophical discussions on morally difficult issues. He does the same thing in this book.

It is a good read and his argument is made clearly and crisply. Perhaps there are a few too many examples to support the same point. For example, he cites the actions of baseball clubs, healthcare providers and a few others to illustrate how the commercialisation of any good changes the way it is perceived and valued.

He is of course right that markets have become the default method for organising the supply and demand of all goods, including public goods. Market theory goes largely unchallenged. But when a good is priced and then distributed according to ability to pay, the way people value it changes. Altruism and public spiritedness (how old fashioned those concepts sound in the marketised world we live in) are pushed aside.

He also emphasises how the selling for money of some things, like names of stadiums or railway stations, or advertising space on police cars, demeans the very thing that  makes it valuable in the first place. He argues that there is no ‘right’ answer to all this, only that we think about each case before rushing to sell public goods to the highest financial bidder.

He or a clone of him should sit on every public authority and government board.


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