“What Money Can’t Buy”, by Michael Sandel

Is there anything money can’t buy these days, one may wonder, at the title.

With a few exceptions like ‘friendship’ and ‘honor’ (which, surprisingly, can remain a debatable issue), unfortunately, nothing in this world is safe from the claws and influence of the market, where everything seems to have a price. What Sandel wants us (or at least I think he does) from this book is to ask ourselves if there is anything that money shouldn’t be able to buy, since just because something can be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be.

Much like the book “Brandwashed” by Martin Lindstrom, in an era governed by the so called free and fair market and consumerism, this book sheds a light where much of our attention has drifted away and we have gotten used to look the other way. Our morality is at stake, and despite the argument by economists that the market will work its own way through if we would just let it free, I say that no matter how free or independent the market is made to look like by economists, its agents and subjects and actors are still ‘us’, the people, and you can’t dismiss that core element because it will impede the fair and swift functioning of the market. After all, if the market is not to serve the people’s purpose, our purpose, what would be its use? Call me ignorant of the deep and convoluted ways of the market and the great science that is economics, but that’s the opinion I will stand by.

Some might criticize Sandel for evading his responsibility as a renowned scholar and offer us multiple doubts without a single answer or solution. Some might find it frustrating to find themselves bombarded with these questions they had lived fine so far without, and now these will linger in the back of their head. Sandel’ duty, or any scholar’s duty for that matter, I think, is not so much providing the perfect answer (which is, in itself, an impossible task for anyone) but to make us aware of the details we let ourselves forget. Details that do matter.

After reading his book, we will have the decency and the courage, and perhaps, just as well say it, the ability, to ‘think’ (an activity we have become too lazy to perform, it seems) about the moral implications our activities have on the world we live in and on the legacy we are likely to pass on to our children (for those who will have children, I for once, think I’ll be spared of that daunting task).

One does not need to see the devil in every little thing they do. Is the cake that I bring to my professor so that he can write me a (good) recommendation letter going to lessen the chances for other students who didn’t? Will the stickers I give to my students for their good deeds a form of corruption that will subconsciously teach them their good behavior should always be rewarded? These are not the questions Sandel wants our lives to be flooded with, but these may be the small things we can consider so meaningless that we may miss the implication they will have when transferred on a bigger scale.

By pointing the finger at the current ‘free’ market we live in and of which many economists are so proud of, Sandel does not accuse the market or the economists  of not doing their job. Rather, he merely suggests that markets may have their limits when it comes to dealing with the ‘human’ element. Markets cannot make us think about the consequences of our acts on a moral level or on a humane level. Markets strive when each side is content and is ‘better off’, but what does ‘being better off’ really mean? If my child is bedridden with a dangerous disease and my only option to save this flesh and blood of mine within the limits of my poverty is to sell my kidney to the highest bidder, does that leave me ‘better off’? If I’m too busy to take care of my own children and would rather pay a tardiness fine to the teacher so that he or she can take care of them for a longer time, taking their precious time away, does that leave the teacher in question ‘better off’?

Dating back to the earliest philosophers, ‘morality’ has been one of the few things us humans have prided in when differentiating ourselves from simple ‘animals’. Yet today we stand helpless, and even worse, unconscious, in front of the market that is trying to take it away. We have the duty, not to anyone else but even just to ourselves, to think about the acts and the consequences of these acts, however simple they might seem.

Now, the question of how this ‘amoral’ market has been the primary and essential means for Professor Sandel to promote his book, be the author of a best-seller and circulate expensive knowledge through books and lectures, when we would like to think that knowledge should be one of the things market shouldn’t buy, is another matter to be discussed.


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