Sandel: Money can’t buy everything — but it can try

Katie McLean | Staff PhotographerPopular Chautauqua lecturer Michael J. Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, lectures on the influence of markets in American society today in his Monday morning presentation in the Amphitheater.
Katie McLean | Staff Photographer
Popular Chautauqua lecturer Michael J. Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, lectures on the influence of markets in American society today in his Monday morning presentation in the Amphitheater.

For those who are wishing to write a warm and meaningful wedding toast but are short on words, a website called The Perfect Toast may be the answer. Just enter some information about yourself and the person you are toasting, and toss in a story or two about how you two met.

Three business days and $149 later, a customized wedding toast will be waiting in your mailbox.

But is this the same thing as a “real” wedding toast?

This was one of the hypotheticals posed to the Amphitheater audience by Monday’s morning lecturer, Michael Sandel. Sandel is a political scientist and philosopher at Harvard University and author of the book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Sandel jump-started Week Four, themed “Markets, Morals and the Social Contract,” with a lecture on how a market economy has permeated most aspects of modern society, even traditionally non-market goods.

“Over the past three decades, we’ve witnessed a quiet revolution,” Sandel said. “We’ve drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society.

“Today, there are very few things that money can’t buy.”

For example, lobbyists can pay homeless people to take their place in the long lines for Congressional hearings, and private defense contractors in the Middle East outnumber the troops on the ground.

“A market economy is a tool, a valuable and effective tool, for organizing productive activity,” Sandel said. “But a market society is a place where everything is up for sale. It’s a way of life in which market values and market thinking begin to reach into every sphere of life.”

So what’s the problem? One can argue that Americans who have earned their way to the top should be able to access faster lines at busy amusement parks and faster lanes in traffic-congested highways.

The problem, Sandel said, is twofold. The more “things” that money can buy, the more affluence, or lack thereof, matters.

“If the only thing that money and wealth determined were access to yachts, fancy vacations and BMWs, inequality wouldn’t matter all that much,” Sandel said. “But when money comes to govern more and more of life, when it decides access to a decent education, to good healthcare, to living in a safe neighborhood rather than a crime-ridden one … when money comes to govern the big things in life, then inequality matters more than it otherwise would.”

This throws economic inequality, which has been steadily increasing over the last 30 years, into sharper relief. It limits quality education, healthcare and housing to those who can afford them.

The second problem that this market society causes is the erosion of the attitudes and norms that make goods the things they are, Sandel said. That wedding toast bought online might be really stunning. It might make everyone laugh, and it might bring tears to the eyes of the listeners. But Sandel asked the audience how they would feel if they found out that their best man or maid of honor had bought an online toast.

“For most of us, the meaning of the toast would be changed or diminished,” he said. “Here’s a case where money can buy a good, but the fact that it’s bought changes the meaning and the value of the good.”

Sandel sought to illustrate this point by interacting with the audience. Using the example of education, he asked the audience to imagine themselves as the superintendent of a poor, low-achieving school district. The superintendent is considering offering cash to students with good grades and high test scores.

“How many people object to this idea in principle?” he asked. About half the audience raised their hands.

He chose one audience member who believed the students should not be paid and asked her why she felt that way.

Jessica, a college professor, said paying students for getting good grades contaminates the value of education and turns learning into a commodity.

The second audience participant was Howard, a doctor, who said that our current education system is failing.

“We should try something else,” he said.

Jessica replied that the reason the education system is failing is because it has already been commoditized. She gave the example of corporations who take over entire school districts and decide the school’s curriculum.

Sandel then asked Howard if, as a doctor, he would consider paying patients to lose weight or to take medication on a regular basis.

“No, I would not,” Howard said. “A little more time discussing the problem, and explaining the reasons and backing it up with repetition, just the way good teaching works, is the way to get the job done.”

Sandel’s engagement with the audience was intended to reinforce the message of his lecture: Americans need more civil discourse.

The influence of money in the market, he said, has led to hollow public discussions and a disengagement from the tough questions that Americans should be asking themselves.

Sandel said this is because economics has widely been considered a value-neutral science of human behavior.

“But if sometimes money and markets crowd out attitudes and norms worth caring about, then it’s not enough to think about economic efficiency,” Sandel said. “We also have to reflect on the moral importance of those attitudes and norms.”

And questions about the morality of these norms are rarely discussed.

“Markets outsource our moral judgment,” Sandel said. “It seems to save us the controversy of messy, public debates where we know we will disagree about how to value goods like health, teaching and learning.”

Sandel said one of the most corrosive effects of this market mindset has been on the resources of commonality. He illustrated this point with an anecdote about a ballpark.

When he was a kid and went to Minnesota Twins’ baseball games in the 1960s, bleacher seats cost about $2.50 less than box seats. CEOs rubbed shoulders with janitors. Everyone ate the same soggy hot dogs and drank the same stale beer.

But now, every stadium has luxury skyboxes that separate the upper class from the underprivileged. Sandel called this divide “the ‘skyboxitization’ of American life.” When inequality is exaggerated in this way, true democracy is threatened, and the voices of the less privileged are drowned out.

“The question of markets is not a mainly economic question,” he said. “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 civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”

Q&A

Q: How does a teacher of economics and finance instill ethics in a 14-week class and still teach the economic theory?

A: We should get together after this session and work it out. I think it is possible. There are two ways to try and teach ethics in business school. One of them is to have a separate class or part of a class devoted to ethics and then teach the other subjects independent of that. The other way is to try to insert ethical questions and dilemmas and challenges into the actual material itself, including in the cases, where the case method is used. I think that’s truer to life and I think that it’s a better, more integral way of incorporating ethics in the teaching of business and finance.

Q: Let’s talk about philanthropy. Do you feel the practice of philanthropy with naming and other sorts of issues that go along with that has been affected by the increase in market discourse and norms? What is the impact on this sector of market norms? 

A: Philanthropy is increasingly adopting the techniques of private industry and marketing techniques, but I don’t think that naming rights as such is objectionable. Hospitals, colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations, have long named buildings and sometimes even themselves after generous donors, and it’s widely understood that these are markers of honor and appreciation for people who have been able to flourish and to succeed. … I don’t think there’s anything objectionable in that. What is objectionable — let me back up and make a general point. My argument is not an argument against markets. It’s an argument in favor of keeping markets in their place, and that is a very difficult thing to do these days. What does that mean in the case of nonprofits? Suppose the owner of an endowed chair would like to share his or her opinion about who should occupy that chair, or what they should teach, or how they should teach their subject, or what opinions or political persuasions they should promote. That’s forbidden territory, and it’s an example where naming rights can serve the public good, but what would count as overreaching. I think nonprofit institutions have to constantly be aware of where to draw the lines with integrity, and the only way to do that is to be clear about the fundamental purposes including the moral and educational purposes that the institution services.

Q: This questioner refers to your point about the coarseness of the political dialogue. Part of what is contended here is that there’s an absence of the two-sided debate on college campuses and in public discourse and specifically in mainline media, so the idea is that the shouting today may be more of an expression of shock that the more traditional views of this country are being marginalized, that liberalism is taking over as the dominant expression. Why not use economic means to find a more contentious place in that dialogue?

A: To find a less contentious place or a more effective place? Because I don’t think that markets can decide, or should decide, fundamental moral and civic questions. Markets are tools, and democratic citizens should wield those tools, rather than the other way around. That’s my point, and that’s my worry. What’s happened, and this has been true across the political spectrum. This phenomenon, what might be called the market triumphalist phenomenon goes back to the early eighties with the arrival of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who made an explicit argument about the primacy of markets as a way of solving social problems. Government was the problem, not the solution; that was their explicit argument. They made it directly, and people agreed or disagreed. What’s striking to me is even after they passed from the political scene, their successors, of different political parties, moderated but in some ways consolidated the “market faith,” and by the “market faith,” I mean the assumption that markets are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. As a result, we never really had a full-out debate about what should be the proper role of markets. Even after the financial markets came, that seemed at the time as though it would mark the end of an era of unquestioned market faith, and that now at last we would have a full public debate about the role of markets, but what’s striking is that even after the financial crisis, we haven’t had that debate. We have had some discussion about regulatory reform, but that was about it. So, as a result, we are unreflectively, I think, in the grip of market thinking in our public life, and that has impoverished our public discourse, and that has distracted us from the morally more robust questions of engagement and justice and the common good in relation to the economy.

Q: Are we hardwired to have a public good, or is this purely a societal construct? If hardwired, are we evolving away from this?

A: I put a lot less emphasis and credence than some of my cognitive neuroscience friends do in trying to figure out what we’re hardwired for. If we’re hardwired for anything — I mean the old way of asking this question, today we say, “Are we hardwired for this or that” — the old way of asking this question is to inquire into human nature, or as a scientific question about how the brain is wired or how evolution has wired us. I prefer the old-fashioned way of reflecting on human nature. But to use the neuroscientific metaphor, Aristotle thought that we’re really only hardwired for one thing, and that is to use language, and to deliberate together about the good life. He didn’t quite see that as hardwiring because it was open-ended and contestable. … I think that’s the fullest realization of our nature and our capacity to deliberate together about the good life, and that in a way is what I think is missing in large measure in our public life today, that debate.

Q: There’s this question and then the larger question — two layers, one specific: Do you think the response in America will be different in this Swiss waste site experiment? Was the Swiss personality considered? You’ve just been around the world with this topic. What are your observations about the communities that are least attuned to the kinds of dialogue that you’re now talking about?

A: First, when I’ve presented this Swiss case to other groups, a number of people say “Well, that’s just the Swiss.” And it is true, that going back to Rousseau’s Geneva, there is a very strong civic tradition and orientation to the common good, so there may well be cultural differences in the way people take these questions, and in the kinds of sacrifices they’re willing to make, and in the kinds of incentives or motivations that will move people. Here’s another thing we take for granted: I spoke before about the language of hardwiring. Even the language of incentives, which we now take for granted. (It abounds in newspaper editorials, general discourse, not only in the jargon of economists.) Even the language of incentives does not go back in the history of economics. Adam Smith never used the word “incentive” in The Wealth of Nations. In fact, the word “incentive” only ever comes into economics, never mind common parlance, in the second half of the 20th century, and now we’ve invented a new word — I think it’s a rather ugly verb — incentivize. “We want to incentivize those students.” And so we’ve made it a verb. People use this term all the time in the editorial page, in business, in politics — incentivize. The word “incentivize,” I went and did one of these searches about how often and when the word begins to be used in newspapers. It really doesn’t come in until the 2000s, and only really gains currency in the last 10 years. But now it seems secondnature to talk about motivating people as incentivizing them. That’s another telling sign of the trend that I’m describing, but just quickly to reply to the last question about responses to these concerns in other parts of the world — the argument that we need to have a public debate about the moral limits of markets (and that’s essentially the argument of the book), that argument is a case easy to make in Europe and in most countries in Asia. The places where that argument meets the most resistance. — there are two, really: One is in the United States, where market assumptions and certain market conceptions of freedom run quite deep, and one other country that is similarly enamored of markets is China. And this is purely unscientific, this is purely impressionistic. I suppose it’s understandable given the experiences.

Q: Facebook and Google offer their services for free, but there’s a saying — “When the service is for free, you’re the product.” What does it say about us when the marketization of everything includes putting ourselves and our privacy up for sale and so cheaply?

A: I think it suggests that we need to reconnect with other sturdier sources of meaning and identity. … I think it basically suggests that we need to revitalize citizenship and we need to strengthen the moral and spiritual sources and common spaces that deepen democratic citizenship.

Q: Let’s look at the economic chasm between the 1 percent and the 99, or the 10 percent and the 90. Will there also develop an ethical chasm between the two groups so that they no longer share common social values, or has that already happened? Follow up to that: Do you know of situations where such stratification in a society has been reversed without violence?

A: Well, if you look at the period at the turn of the century in the United States, there was a vast gap between rich and poor. This was at a time when the great industrial giants, the fortunes were made. The oil companies, the railroad companies. There was a yawning gap between rich and poor, and what it spawned — well, it spawned a couple of things and philanthropic undertakings. It also spawned the Progressive Movement and an era of political reform that took that inequality seriously, and took it seriously not only because those at the bottom were cut off from access to consumption in the consumer society. It also took that inequality seriously as an obstacle to democracy. And so the debates throughout the Progressive Era were all about how to reduce inequalities, but also to limit the civic consequences of inequality, and the striking difference between those times and ours — 100 years later — the similarity is that we too have lived through a time of a growing gap between rich and poor, but unlike that era, we have not found our way to a morally and spiritually energized project of reform. And so the real question, I think, is not what policy we can implement to address rising inequality. That matters, and there are lots of policies that can do that, but how to change the terms and the focus of our public discourse so that we can engage directly with big ethical and spiritual questions including big questions of justice and what it means to be a citizen, so that we can bring from this time of rampant marketization and inequality a new democratic moment. That’s our challenge, and whether we’re up to it I think remains to be seen.

—Transcribed by Chad M. Weisman