March 15, 2012 columns

Michael Sandel Thinks Markets Make Us Worse—But He Can Make Us Better

Powell defends Free Markets against some of its most common, and most silly, assaults.

Michael J. Sandel has an article in The Atlantic on the moral limits of markets. In it he expresses remarkably common views about the dangers of market forces but does so through remarkably sloppy analysis for such a major thinker.

The piece begins with a litany of horrors. Can you believe it’s possible to buy your way into a carpool lane, even if there’s only one person in your car?  Can you believe rich folks would hire Indian surrogate mothers when there are (more expensive) Americans available? And on and on goes the list of awful things both bought and sold.

After assuming that his readers are as shocked—shocked—by this as he is, Sandel writes, “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.”

And here’s his first—of many—missteps. Because of course we did arrive at this condition through deliberate choice. Every item bought and every item sold in his preamble was bought and sold through deliberate choice on the part of those doing the buying and the selling. Sandel’s argument thus is not that there wasn’t any deliberate choice involved but that the deliberative chooser wasn’t who Sandel thinks it should’ve been—and the choices made weren’t what Sandel himself would’ve chosen.

In other words, it’s not that we haven’t chosen. Rather, we haven’t chosen the way Michael J. Sandel would have. (Sandel seems to believe that “deliberate choice” would lead to preferences matching his own. He never appears to consider that people like having the freedom to decide for themselves what they can buy and sell with consenting participants.) Michael J. Sandel decidedly would not choose markets in many instances where willing buyers and sellers obviously have. For one, Sandel thinks markets breed inequality. Those with money can buy more than those without. Second, “putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them.”

The most silly—and monstrous—claim Sandel makes regarding corruption is about how markets set value. “But not all goods are properly valued [by markets],” Sandel writes. “The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction.”

No. Slavery was not appalling because it allowed human beings to be sold as commodities in the market. It was appalling because it allowed human beings to be enslaved. A system where slaves weren’t bought and sold but were instead granted by a king or claimed by victorious warriors would be just as awful as one where they’re allocated by the market.

Relatedly, throughout the article, Sandel displays a lack of awareness of alternatives. He laments the use of markets “to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods.” And he might be right. Who knows? Maybe there are better ways to allocate those things. But allocated they must be, and Sandel never really bothers to acknowledge how they’d be allocated if not via markets—nor how they were allocated before markets.

After all, it’s not the case that, prior to markets in health, education, and recreation, everyone just had as much as they needed as often as they needed. Instead, allocation occurred along other lines, most of them worse than markets. Education was a matter of class privilege. It was denied to members of certain races. Social goods came at the whims of kings and priests. Markets may not be perfect, but they’re better than determining distribution through arbitrary features like the color of one’s skin or the social class of one’s parents. At least markets give everyone the possibility to participate. Caste systems do not. When Sandel argues that, “in a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means,” he ignores that, in a society where everything is distributed by and for whites, for example, meaningful life is practically impossible for non-whites. The same goes for women, for religious minorities, and for disfavored political groups. Something must do the distributing and markets are, in most cases and if nothing else, the least worst option.

Sandel’s solution to “the corrosive tendency of markets,” is, of course, more government. “[W]e need to do more than inveigh against greed,” he writes. We also “need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t.” He goes on, “A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong.”

While there are legal constraints on what can be bought and sold, the rest of Sandel’s statement—the “public good,” “we” deciding, “public debate”—raise more questions than they answer. Members of society decide all the time whether given items belong the in market. They do this through the rather mundane act of choosing whether to buy (or sell) them or not. If I don’t think it’s okay to pay children to read, I won’t pay my daughter to read. If you do think it is okay, you will pay your son to read. And so on.

What Sandel wants instead is for government to force us to comply with the wishes of others, particularly if we’re in the minority when “society” decides. He’d banish individual choice on the part of parents and make it simply illegal for me to pay my daughter to read. If the public debate is to extend to such questions, then the public debate will necessarily encompass everything in our lives. Because, as Sandel makes clear, everything in our lives is conceivably distributable through market processes.

Sandel assures his readers that having this debate—letting “society” decide—“would make for a healthier public life.” But it wouldn’t. It would make everything worse because it would extend the scope of politics and politics makes us worse.

Can you think of any sphere of life outside of politics (and, perhaps, religion) where differences of opinions make us hate each other? Political debate by most Americans is uninformed (because most Americans don’t have the time to learn the details of all the issues presented to them) and rancorous. We despise each other over tiny differences in tax bills. This does nothing to make us better people and it does nothing to improve society.

Now imagine extending the sphere of politics to everything. How can this in any way “make for a healthier public life?” It can’t. The only way to make public life healthier is to scale back the scope of what political debate covers. Then we will all have less reason to worry about what the guy down the street—or in that red or blue state—thinks about such-and-such. He can have his opinion and we can have ours. On the other hand, letting “society” decide makes those opinions matter because if society decides his way, you’ll be forced to comply.

Sandel’s article accomplishes nothing except expose just how dangerous it would be if people like Michael J. Sandel got their way.