America has placed too much faith in the power of markets for the past 30 years, a belief not even the financial crisis could shake. The country risks losing its soul as a result.
That's the warning of Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, expressed in a new book, "What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets."
"Over the past three decades, roughly, markets have been triumphant," Sandel told The Huffington Post on Friday, referring to the ascension, which he said began with the political rise of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, of "the idea that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the public good."
This belief in the power of markets to improve our lives was reinforced by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton and survived even the financial crisis, Sandel noted, "after all financial markets were utterly discredited, or so it seemed."
Sandel said American society is steadily changing from a market economy to what he calls a "market society, a way of life in which market values and market reasoning reach into every sphere of life," including education, health care and military service.
In an excerpt of his book published by The Atlantic, Sandel cites several specific and unnerving examples of the creeping reach of markets, including a woman who earned $10,000 for having a company's Web address permanently tattooed on her forehead. She used the money to help pay for her son's education.
The problem with being able to buy and sell increasing numbers of things is that we devalue the things we are buying and selling -- including our foreheads, our health, our children's education, Sandel argues. Ultimately this corrodes the ties that bind Americans together.
"The more things money can buy, the more the affluent can buy their way out," Sandel said. "The affluent lose a stake in the public sphere, and increasingly we lead separate lives."
"That's not good for democracy, and it's not a satisfying way to live," he added.
Sandel said he had little hope that the financial reforms that followed the crisis would do much to change the dominance of markets. After all, they still arise from the belief that the market knows best and that corporations should be relatively unfettered. The Dodd-Frank financial regulations have left in place banks that are too big to fail and not accountable for creating the crisis, Sandel said. That has led to a festering anger on both sides of the political spectrum, manifested in the Tea Party and Occupy movements.
Sandel said that really breaking the thrall of the markets would require overcoming "an allergy we have ... to bringing ethics, morality and virtue into public discourse." That could be a particular problem for the left, which is accustomed to those realms being the home turf of the religious right, on issues such as reproduction and sexuality.
A potentially higher hurdle to changing attitudes is that the allure of free markets is closely tied to how Americans see themselves.
"In our society especially, markets seem to embody a certain idea of freedom," Sandel said. "It's a narrow, limited, impoverished idea of freedom -- the freedom to buy and trade goods, a consumerist idea of freedom. And it's deeply held.
"The allure of that narrow vision of freedom is not something to be underestimated," he added. "That is why it's hard to break the thrall of markets and market thinking."