January 9, 2015

What Money Can't Buy

“Michael Sandel” is one of the most commonly referenced Harvard Professors in Korea. I remember a guest lecturer at chapel during my second year stating that he thought Korea was the only country in the world where people read Sandel’s Justice on the subway. At that time, I only knew about Sandel and, although it was embarrassing to admit, I had never actually read any of his books. Everything about Sandel seemed so overrated at first and I didn’t want to seem like I was just reading something because everyone else already read it.

During last semester’s Theories of International Justice course, some of the class material came from Sandel’s Justice. The professor only assigned it as “recommended reading” but, of course, I made sure to read a few chapters so that I could reference it in my final exam paper. His use of the Socratic Method and simplistic style of writing was a good break from that of John Rawls, Immanuel Kant and John Locke. So, as soon as the semester ended, I stole my sister’s copy of What Money Can’t Buy and started reading.

Sandel has a talent in choosing a perfect, but random, example of the point he is trying to make. This book is full of short story-like examples, of where the open market triumphs over morality.
For example, in his first chapter, titled “Jumping the Queue”, he gives examples of how money can actually buy time by shorting the time spent waiting in line, such as at an airport or an amusement park. There is also the business of ‘line standers’, who sell off their place in a line for the highest bidder; many are hired by lobbyists in Washington who are willing to pay up to $1,000 to get a seat in a committee hearing.

While reading about the arguments in the debate about the morality of markets, it really got me to think about the realities of today. One of the two objections to markets that Sandel discusses is the fairness objection. It asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect. The second is the corruption objection, which asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve.

In Chapter 3 (“How Markets Crowd Out Morals”), Sandel says:
Consider kidneys. It’s true that money can buy one without ruining its value. But should kidneys be bought and sold? Those who say no typically object on one of two grounds: They argue that such markets prey upon the poor, whose choice to sell their kidneys may not be truly voluntary (the fairness argument). Or they argue that such markets promote a degrading, objectifying view of the human person, as a collection of spare parts (the corruption argument).

I guess I never really ever thought about how some acts of selling may not actually be voluntary. I was always a firm believer of Adam Smith’s laissez-faire, but now I’m not so sure that I can say that I am. As a person who has not actually witnessed extreme poverty, I don’t know how the market can be so unfair to some while being an opportunity for others.

Overall, while this book seemed at first to just list random examples, Sandel successfully shows both side of the debate between markets and its moral limits. Now I can see why his books are so popular. And, equally as important, I can finally say that I read a book by Michael Sandel. 

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