What Money Can't Buy The Moral Limits of Markets

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2012-04-24
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Should we pay children to read books or to get good grades? Should we put a price on human life to decide how much pollution to allow? Is it ethical to pay people to test risky new drugs or to donate their organs? What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars, outsourcing inmates to forprofit prisons, auctioning admission to elite universities, or selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay? In What Money Can't Buy, Michael J. Sandel takes up one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: Isn't there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don't belong? What are the moral limits of markets? In recent decades, market values have crowded out nonmarket norms in almost every aspect of lifemedicine, education, government, law, art, sports, even family life and personal relations. Without quite realizing it, Sandel argues, we have drifted from havinga market economy to beinga market society. In Justice, an international bestseller, Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating, with clarity and verve, the hard moral questions we confront in our everyday lives. Now, in What Money Can't Buy, he provokes a debate that's been missing in our market-driven age: What is the proper role of markets in a democratic society, and how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Author Biography

Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. His work has been the subject of television series on PBS and the BBC. His most recent book is the international bestseller Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Table of Contents

Praise for Justice:

Justice, the new volume from superstar Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel, showcases the thinking on public morality that has made him one of the most sought-after lecturers in the world.” —Richard Reeves, Democracy

“In terms we can all understand, [ Justice] confronts us with the concepts that lurk, so often unacknowledged, beneath our conflicts.” —Jonathan Rauch, The New York Times Book Review

“More than exhilarating; exciting in its ability to persuade this student/reader, time and again, that the principle now being invoked—on this page, in this chapter—is the one to deliver the sufficiently inclusive guide to the making of a decent life.” —Vivian Gornick, Boston Review

“Hard cases may make bad law, but in Michael Sandel’s hands they produce some cool philosophy . . . Justice is a timely plea for us to desist from political bickering and see if we can have a sensible discussion about what sort of society we really want to live in.” —Jonathan Rée, The Observer (London)

“Michael J. Sandel, political philosopher and public intellectual, is a liberal, but not the annoying sort. His aim is not to boss people around but to bring them around to the pleasures of thinking clearly about large questions of social policy. Reading this lucid book is like taking his famous undergraduate course Justice without the tiresome parts, such as term papers and exams.” —George F. Will

Justice is Sandel at his finest: no matter what your views are, his delightful style will draw you in, and he’ll then force you to rethink your assumptions and challenge you to question accepted ways of thinking . . . He calls us to a better way of doing politics, and a more enriching way of living our lives.” —E. J. Dionne, Jr.


Introduction: Markets and Morals


There are some things money can’t buy, but these days, not many. Today, almost everything is up for sale. Here are a few examples:


A prison cell upgrade: $82 per night.In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodations—a clean, quiet jail cell, away from the cells for nonpaying prisoners.

Access to the car pool lane while driving solo: $8 during rush hour.Minneapolis and other cities are trying to ease traffic congestionby letting solo drivers pay to drive in car pool lanes, atrates that vary according to traffic.

The services of an Indian surrogate mother to carry a pregnancy: $6,250.Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsourcethe job to India, where the practice is legal and the priceis less than one- third the going rate in the United States.

The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000.Foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least ten jobs in an area of high unemployment are eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.

The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $150,000.South Africa has begun letting ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species.

The cell phone number of your doctor: $1,500 and up per year.A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cell phone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000.

The right to emit a metric ton of carbon into the atmosphere: €13 (about $18). The European Union runs a carbon emissionsmarket that enables companies to buy and sell the right topollute.

Admission of your child to a prestigious university: ?Although the price is not posted, officials from some top universities toldThe Wall Street Journalthat they accept some less than stellar students whose parents are wealthy and likely to make substantial

financial contributions.


Not everyone can afford to buy these things. But today there are lots of new ways to make money. If you need to earn some extra cash, here are some novel possibilities:


Rent out space on your forehead (or elsewhere on your body) to display commercial advertising: $777.Air New Zealand hiredthirty people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattooswith the slogan “Need a change? Head down to New Zealand.”

Serve as a human guinea pig in a drug safety trial for a pharmaceutical company: $7,500.The pay can be higher or lower,depending on the invasiveness of the procedure used to test thedrug’s effect, and the discomfort involved.

Fight in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military company: $250 per month to $1,000 per day.The pay varies accordingto qualifications, experience, and nationality.

Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15–$20 per hour.The lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hirehomeless people and others to queue up.

If you are a second grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2.To encourage reading, the schools pay kids foreach book they read.

If you are obese, lose fourteen pounds in four months: $378.Companies and health insurers offer financial incentives forweight loss and other kinds of healthy behavior.

Buy the life insurance policy of an ailing or elderly person, pay the annual premiums while the person is alive, and then collect the death benefit when he or she dies: potentially, millions (depending on the policy).This form of betting on the lives ofstrangers has become a $30 billion industry. The sooner thestranger dies, the more the investor makes.


We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.

As the cold war ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet, even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone but increasingly governs the whole of life. It is time to ask whether we want to live this way.

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