Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

What Money Can’t Buy. Michael Sandel. A Socialist Review.

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What Money Can’t Buy. Michael Sandel. The Moral Limits of Markets.   Allen Lane. 2012.

Conservative MP, Ben Gummer (Ipswich), believes that owning a business should give you an extra vote in municipal elections. Local councillors too often “cannot read a balance sheet”. Towns and cities need to be run by those who can. Following the City of London there should be special electoral privileges given to companies and their owners. This would help councils face economic reality.

It’s hard not to be reminded of this when reading Michael Sandel’s new book. The philosopher notes that “Today, almost everything is up for sale”. In Santa Ana California you can by a “prison cell upgrade” to make your time in goal more comfortable. You can get into a top university by paying, passing ahead of those with better grades.

“Jumping the queue” with cash, for everything from airport immigration control, theatre tickets to medical care, is spreading like wildfire across the USA. These, and other aspects of “marketisation”, from corporations benefiting from ‘insuring’ their employees lives, to rampant advertising and ‘sponsorship’, are part of a world where “everything is up for sale”.

Sandel is less sure-footed about the UK. Here people have, despite the NHS, been able to pay to jump the queue for medical needs; public schools offer a way to buy an education that guarantees far superior access to Universities.

But there are signs that the process is not so different.

Conservative councils, like Barnet, propose offering better services and quicker access to those who can fork out cash. Companies and others have been able to purchase influence over Academy Schools. Now ‘free schools’ are a way for those with the money to get state support for their educational projects, including private firms and religious groups. Payment extends to lesser affairs. To urinate in a Council (though privately run) lavatory in Westminster costs 50 pence, leaving the really poor to piss in the streets.

Markets and Queues.

“Markets and queues – paying and waiting – are two different ways of allocating things…” Sandel writes. There is an “ethic of the queue” It is, ‘First come, first served’. It “ignores privilege, power and “deep pockets”. There is a deep resentment against anybody who refuses to wait her or his turn. It is, one might say, justice as fairness.

Against the queue there is the argument for “individual freedom”. “People should be free to buy and sell whatever they please. As long as they don’t violate anyone’s rights.”(Page 29) Then there is the utilitarian view that, “market exchanges benefits buyers and sellers alike…” They let people “make mutually advantageous trades, markets allocate goods to those who value them most highly, as measured by their willingness to pay.”(Ibid)

Free-marketers will no doubt add that queues not only allocate goods in short supply but they create shortages. If everybody is guaranteed a minimum, and forbidden to get more, the inverse is that there is no incentive to increase the supply.

A further traditional argument is that queues are a sign of allocation by ‘patterned’, state, decisions, rather than by individual choice.

To hard line free-market supporters all social goods should be distributed by markets. We have a right to spend as we wish. The market will provide what is rationally the best, for those willing to pay for it. Health care, for example, should not be paid for out of a tax, ‘rationed’, that is made equal for all. As consumers we will make rational choices about how to spend money to protect our well-being. The state should not decide in our place.

Yet, as Sandel observes, “market choices are not free choices if some people are desperately poor or lack the ability to bargain on fair terms.”(Page 112) Unequal resources (or no resources at all), “coerce the disadvantaged and undermine the fairness of the deals they make?”(Ibid) Under “unfair bargaining conditions” there is no genuine freedom of choice. Social segregation, where one group pays its way to a good life, leaving the rest do with second best, is the result.

Sandel could be clearer on the implications of this. Markets give the ability of those with funds to exploit their position. For everybody getting better goods because they can pay there is somebody deprived of the best treatment. For each individual that gets a college place through payment, there is one who did not get it. For each person jumping the queue in the Hospital there is another who is made to wait longer.


What Money Can’t Buy summarises the development of present-day society. Today, “markets and market-orientated thinking reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by non market norms – health, education, procreation, refugee policy, environmental protection…”(Page 79) Post the Kyoto Protocol emissions trading is well-known. But the proposal by US economist Peter Schuck, to create a trade in countries’ quotas to take in refugees still surprises.

In this vein “putting a price on goods we consider priceless” means that markets “crowd out morals”. They eliminate discussion of the “ meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.” (Page 202) As he put it in Justice (2009) they remove substantive debate about the good society and “a politics of moral engagement”.

But what is Sandel’s alternative? It is to revive that kind of discussion. “Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.”(Page 202) “Democracy does not require prefect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life.” (Page 203) “…are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”(Ibid)

This moral argument, in line with Sandel’s ‘communitarian’ philosophy, that is a vision of society built around a substantial common life, is surprisingly thin. Issues such as substantive equality, and the rights and wrongs of private ownership, that precede markets – taken up by European thinkers such as Rousseau, Morelly, and Mably, over 200 years ago – are shunted aside. The case against markets, about exploitation and class, simply do not register. There is nothing about the case for social ownership, Marxism, or indeed socialism of any kind. Instead we are invited to a debate about ‘values’, as if we have all accepted markets and only have to decide on their proper limits.

This is not simply a matter of ethical controversy. The ‘marketisation’ of society is a process with an institutional basis. One significant aspect in the Untied Kingdom is the way the welfare state is being privatised.

Markets may mean queue jumping in health and education, but more important is the way the process has led to private companies taking over ever-larger swathes of public provision. The unemployed are at present allocated to firms operating the Work Programme. There is little freedom for them – threatened with loss of benefits if they fail to follow every dot and comma of the providers’ commands. But the hived off welfare state has become a huge and profitable business, paid for by public funds, for those exploiting this ‘outsourcing’ of public responsibility.

Politics and Markets.

Ben Gummer’s proposals for the business vote are not needed. Most of all these market operators have become political players. They have direct input into public policy, designing the very measures that they benefit from. With this backing they have survived public exposure about their inefficiency and profiteering, not to mention outright fraud. The same process is underway in the National Health Service.

The commercialisation of public life is not, then, a spontaneous process. Those with an economic interest in its growth push it forward. Political parties began the sell off of public goods. They have helped construct markets where none existed before. It would perhaps have been to the point if, when Sandel addressed this year’s Labour Party Conference, if he had referred to these issues. Instead all he said was “And so in the end the question of markets is really not an economic question. It’s a question of how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civil goods that markets do not honour and markets cannot buy.” But under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown the Party was complicit in marketing public goods. A ‘debate’ about our common life should start there, not left in the high realms where ‘values’ clash beyond institutional reality.


3 Responses

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  1. […] Waste £1 Billion on Private Health Insured PatientsThe Welcome Death of Traditional AmericaWhat Money Can’t Buy. Michael Sandel. A Socialist Review. .recentcomments a{display:inline !important;padding:0 !important;margin:0 […]

  2. These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted.


    November 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm

  3. People are taking them less and less for granted in the UK, as the furore over the private companies contracted to carry out the Work programme indicates.

    Against nationalisation it used to be said that production was not an administrative task, and that a state administration could not do it effectively.

    It can now be proved that administration is not a task that profit making companies can carry out to meet the needs of the public.

    Proof of this will be shown, many think, on November the 27th when the figures will come out showing the failure of private busienss to run the Work Programme.

    Andrew Coates

    November 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm

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