Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What Money Can't Buy, by Michael Sandel

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Michael Sandel's short, subtle book convinces that the market has the power to corrode non-market activities, and that there should perhaps be a limit to the public spheres where money can enter. 

It's often said that if we paid politician more, then we would get better ones. This is an argument that you hear from time to time, in Australian public life at least. I remember a few years ago telling a work mate the approximate amount of money an Australian Prime Minister gets paid. When he learnt the (relatively) low amount, he rolled his eyes and said no wonder we got such bad Prime Ministers. I’ve always had trouble with this argument. Isn’t the ability to influence events in such a positive way enough of an incentive, rather than money in excess of any practical use? Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy is a book that eloquently answers this question.

In an interesting experiment that Sandel relates, three separate groups of students were sent out with the brief of raising money for a charity. All groups got the spiel on how important the charity was. Two of the groups were given an extra cash incentive in the hope that it would spur them on to raise more money, one a small amount and the other a more substantial one. The third group got no cash incentive. Which group did the best? The students that were offered no money. It seems that the pep talk about the intrinsic value of the charity acted as the greater incentive. The lesson that Sandel draws from this is that the introduction of markets into traditionally non-market activities has the power to warp them. The common thinking is that the market is the best and most efficient way to achieve nearly all goals in modern life. Sandel suggests that the market may have an opposite effect in certain domains. Other values – like the respect of your peers, the worthiness of a cause – may be better at getting results.

This is a rather subtle book written in a gentle yet persistent voice. Reading it, you might think that you’ve heard this argument before. Yes, we all know that money corrupts. What makes Sandel’s book stand out is the conviction and thoughtfulness with which he sets out his arguments. He has a philosopher’s temperament, carefully turning his subject to view it from every angle, and his arguments are framed outside of the self-righteous clash of left versus right, or progressive versus conservative politics.

At two hundred pages, this is a short book that almost works as a pamphlet decrying the overt commercialisation of modern life. In many ways, Sandel is almost a heretic. When he wrote an opinion piece in a major American newspaper criticising the use of emissions trading schemes as a way of combating climate change, he was pilloried for his efforts. The anger of the response is interesting. It seems there’s a dread and fear of thinking outside the economic orthodoxy. We’re all so deeply immersed in the notion that markets are the only rational way to fix all problems that reading Sandel’s book can help us to set our thinking a bit straighter when it comes to money, markets and the limits of their power.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael Sandel. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241954485 $22.99