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Jeffrey Abelson Headshot

Does the Invisible Hand Really Know Best?

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Is the free market really free? Or does it come at the expense of civic values we neglect at our peril?

That's one of many questions I found myself pondering after reading What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets -- the masterful new book by Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel.

In example after jaw-dropping example, Sandel examines the implications of living in a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. When market values drive not just all economic decision-making, but all aspects of our individual and collective lives, crowding out civic values, and corrupting our democracy in the process.

Is it efficient? Will it make money? That's all the market cares about. But the good society needs to care about more. Doesn't it?

Most Americans are fed up with the outsized influence of money in politics, and the corruption that results. But we rarely stop to think about the ways that money, in the form of market values, pervade just about everything else we do -- and the degree to which we, the citizens, enable it. And whether that produces a corruption of society, and our civic souls.

And that maybe these two kinds of corruption are connected. Ask yourself:

• How do you feel about paying children to read books, or to get good grades?
• Or the ethics of paying people to test risky new drugs -- or to donate their organs?
• What about hiring mercenaries to fight America's wars?
• Or allowing cash-strapped communities to sell ads on police cars and fire hydrants?
• How about outsourcing inmates to privately owned prisons because it's more cost-effective?
• Or allowing those who can afford it to buy special access to doctors?
• Or buying admission to elite universities when students with better grades are rejected?
• How about selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?
• Or allowing businesses to advertise inside our schools?
• Is it moral to put a price on human life to decide how much pollution to allow? 
• What about buying other people's life insurance policies to bet on when they'll die -- for profit?

Would it surprise you to know that all of these things are happening in America today? And that many of them are highly popular and widely embraced?

In What Money Can't Buy, Sandel challenges us to answer some fundamental questions. He wants us to think hard about whether there are some parts of community life, and our personal lives, that should be immune to market calculations. Whether there are certain goods and services and measures of happiness that shouldn't be computed in dollars, that can't be properly honored using marketplace values.

Because, Sandel contends, "When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities." But when we think beyond the one-dimensional morality of the market, we keep these social goods off limits. Which is why citizens can't purchase their way out of jury duty, or offer their votes for sale. So, fortunately, there are still some things that money can't buy. "But these days, not many."

However, this is not a liberal argument for regulation or taxation, or an economic response to laissez-faire invisible hand orthodoxy. In fact, it's not an economic analysis at all -- it's a moral and philosophical one. It's an argument against economic thinking dominating all sectors of society -- as has increasingly become the case over the last 30 years, pushing many of our ideals and communal values overboard, as profit and loss became our only beacon.

That said, Sandel is no foe of markets. He recognizes their singular success in "generating affluence and prosperity." He just refuses to stay blind to the fact that -- while markets improve our financial lives -- they also diminish important components of the good life. And the good society. So this book is his gentle remonstration for us to keep our eyes open too.

And he'll be reaching a lot of eyeballs.

Often referred to as the most popular philosophy professor in the world, Sandel's last book -- Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do? -- was a phenomenon. Based on his legendary Harvard course, the book sold over two million copies -- and was turned into a 12-part PBS series of the same name. On YouTube alone, his 60-minute videos have generated over four million views, and counting. For lectures -- from a philosophy professor!

What's really interesting is how well his style and message travels. In a 2011 N.Y. Times piece called "Justice Goes Global," Tom Friedman said: "He's a rock star in Asia, and people in China, Japan and South Korea scalp tickets to hear him. Japan's NHK TV broadcast a translated version of the PBS series, which sparked a philosophy craze in Japan."

Same thing in China, where subtitled versions of his lectures online have attracted millions of viewers. India too, and throughout Europe, and back in the USA, not least in the elegant Sanders Theater at Harvard, where over 1,000 students fill the hall for every lecture, all semester long.

But why? What's the basis of this universal appeal? As a recent Forbes India article pointed out, people everywhere are hungry for meaningful discussion of the big political and ethical questions we confront in our daily lives. Discussion they don't get from political leaders or the news media. And Sandel's genial, playful, and often-amusing manner resonates strongly with audiences of all kinds. It's one of his secret weapons. But it's his highly engaging teaching style that people most respond to.

He doesn't simply lecture, he uses riveting thought experiments to motivate us to think for ourselves -- to justify reasons for our choices, and fully understand their implications. It's an interactive journey into moral reasoning, with Sandel as the professor we always wished we had.

All well and good for college students and the educated elite. But the notion of ordinary grown-ups finding the time or will to scale the heights of Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Rawls, and the other great minds of history, can seem a daunting task. But Sandel makes it easy, and even entertaining. He starts by raising a hotly contested contemporary issue, and asks members of his audience for their opinions, and their reasons for them. Always respecting those views, he then starts poking holes (and poking fun) in them by drawing on key philosophers of the last 2500 years to reveal the deeper values and moral principles that are really at stake in any political debate. It's a powerful Socratic style that helps us think clearly and critically about our deepest held beliefs and values. But in a way that's inviting and motivating.

As such, it's incredibly empowering. And enjoyable -- as his talks feel more like a concert or play than a lecture. Or as Friedman says: "Besides being educational, the classes make great theater."

And those classes, and the books that emerge from them, can help us become better citizens.

Conservative columnist Michael Gerson summed up Sandel's impact like this: "He ends up clarifying a basic political divide -- not between left and right, but between those who recognize nothing greater than individual rights and choices, and those who affirm a politics of the common good, rooted in moral beliefs that can't be ignored."

And liberal columnist E.J. Dionne put it this way: "He'll force you to rethink your assumptions and challenge you to question accepted ways of thinking. He calls us to a better way of doing politics, and a more enriching way of living our lives."

In Justice, Sandel showed himself to be a master at illuminating the hard moral and philosophical questions that we must constantly answer as individuals, and as a society. And he provided a roadmap that enables people of all ages and all educational levels to develop their own well-reasoned views on the many hotly debated issues of the day.

Now, in What Money Can't Buy, he takes on the elephant in the room -- a root-level issue that's been sorely missing in our political discourse. Deciding about the proper role, and reach, of markets is a defining issue of our times. It's the issue that lies just beneath all the economic, social, and political issues that we endlessly debate, but rarely resolve, as we're debating symptoms rather than causes.

In all his work, Sandel shows us how to use the philosophical wisdom of the ages to help define what we really mean by a good society. The kind of society we all pay lip service to, but too often undermine by allowing (consciously and not) market values to rule all aspects of modern life.

In these economically tenuous times, when trust in our freewheeling financial markets are at all time lows, it's a message likely to resonate widely. Even the Wall Street Journal ran a positive review.

With money playing such a huge and clearly corrupting role in our politics -- and with the fierce debate about the role and cost of government at the root of our poisonous polarization and government gridlock -- nothing could be more timely and important than a very public conversation about when and where markets serve the public good and where they don't.

For in the final analysis, Sandel reminds us:

the question about the role of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy? If so, how can we prevent market values from reaching into spheres of life where they don't belong? What are the moral limits of markets?

Good questions. Read the book. And join the debate it's guaranteed to ignite around the world.