Book review: What Money Can’t Buy

Markets have entered most aspects of life in recent years. This book by Michael Sandel, professor of politics at Harvard is a study of the moral limits of markets and market values and argues that markets are not morally neutral. 


What money can’t buy is first and foremost a collection of examples of market values encroaching into various aspects of life and altering its moral make-up. 

One such as example is the stranger originated life insurance or Stoli, where an employer takes out life insurance for an employee and collects if the employee dies. Even if no unrelated third party is involved the idea of life insurance has always been controversial, Sandel shows. The initial idea of protecting dependents from the economic impact of the death of an insured was illegal for some time in many European countries. Now the moral boundaries have been pushed even further by enabling investors to bet on the lives of individuals. 

Another market developed for viaticals, life insurance policies taken out by people dying of Aids. Investors would buy these policies with the lump sum paying for patient care. The catch for investors: the sooner the patient dies, the higher the return. 

For Sandel the life insurance industry has crossed a moral boundary by developing these products and applying market principles to them. 

Because over the past three years markets and market values have governed our lives like never before, they are changing the moral fabric of society, Sandel argues. 

This does not mean that he is against the application of markets per se and he acknowledges their positive impact if employed in the right areas. “No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity.” 

But the expansion of markets into areas where they don’t belong and the degradation of values in these fields is what his criticism aims at. 

An Israeli day care centre offers another example where such a moral shift takes place. The day care centre introduced a fine for parents if they were late for picking up their children to deal with the increasing problem. But rather than creating a disincentive the fine had the opposite effect and more parents picked up their children late at the end of each day. Instead of seeing it as a fine parents regarded the payment as a fee which morally justified their being late. 

When the fee was abolished, the number of parents that were late remained high. The moral pressure of abiding by the rules had been eroded by the introduction of the market-based approach. 

Sandel gives many more such examples from paying others for queuing to carbon trading. 

Critics have accused Sandel of being long on denouncing the marketisation of all aspects of life but short on how to distinguish where market paradigms are still moral and where they aren’t. 

These critics however misunderstand the main thrust of the argument: To identify and resist the increasingly pervasive utilitarian ideology that markets are efficient and therefore should be employed in all aspects of life.  

“The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together,” Sandel says. “Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”