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Still, Sandel doesn’t seem to have thought very hard about these things. His research skills have discovered that there is “a company in China” that you can pay to write an apology, and that at ThePerfectToast.com you can purchase a prefab wedding toast. “Apologies and wedding toasts are goods that can, in a sense, be bought,” he writes. “But buying and selling them changes their character and diminishes their value.” Perhaps. But so what? Drug store companies have been selling syrupy Hallmark cards for decades. I don’t use them. Like Sandel, I speak and write for a living. Unlike Sandel, I understand that not everyone else does.
Among the many items Sandel believes are “degraded” when exchanged for money are human kidneys. Of course, allowing people to offer money for voluntarily donated kidneys may save lives (or “ease the gap between supply and demand,” as Sandel delicately puts it), but it “taints” the goods exchanged. Making it illegal to exchange kidneys for money may be costing thousands of people their lives, but, hey, it satisfies our—which is to say, Professor Sandel’s—desire to avoid tackiness.
In a book full of praise for the moral virtues of nonmonetary exchanges, there is only one concession to the advantages of markets: “As the cold war ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, understandably so,” Sandel graciously concedes. “No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity.”
It’s something, but it ain’t much. In contrast, nonmarket norms, such as queuing, subsistence hunting, need, chance, and honor (mostly unaccompanied by any specific mechanisms of allocation), are consistently praised as “higher.” That’s a remarkably obtuse approach. There is a long tradition of thinkers, from Montesquieu and Voltaire to Milton Friedman and Deirdre McCloskey, that has focused attention on the moral virtues of markets, not merely their ability to produce wealth.
Sandel is surrounded by market exchanges that enhance his life, but all he can see is corruption, corrosion, and degradation. Never is the price system praised for displacing an inferior moral norm. It seems that whatever form of interaction is displaced by a price system must be better, higher, nobler. Au contraire! Markets punish and eventually push out tribalism, confessionalism, racism, cronyism, and many other traditions. And good riddance.
It’s not as if this point has never been made. “Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes,” Montesquieu wrote in 1748, “and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners.” Sandel never acknowledges that intellectual tradition.
As Milton Friedman (who Sandel dismisses without engaging) once noted, “no one who buys bread knows whether the wheat from which it is made was grown by a Communist or a Republican, by a constitutionalist or a Fascist, or, for that matter, by a Negro or a white. This illustrates how an impersonal market separates economic activities from political views and protects men from being discriminated against in their economic activities for reasons that are irrelevant to their productivity—whether these reasons are associated with their views or their color.”
Prices, contra Sandel, “corrode” many nonmarket norms that we are better off without. Markets promote color blindness, punctuality, mutual respect, the “double thank you” of voluntary exchanges, and peace. Somehow those virtues don’t make it into Sandel’s musings on the moral limits of markets.
What Money Can’t Buy will titillate with its examples of odd things some people buy and sell. But it fails to provide moral guidance to how we should behave (other than not fooling ourselves by thinking we can buy true friendship), and it gives even less insight into the roles that prices and markets play in our lives.