We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets -- and market values -- have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.
As the cold war ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proven as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet, even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone but increasingly governs the whole of life. We have drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.
And while economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods they exchange, this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket norms.
Of course, people disagree about the norms appropriate to many of the domains that markets have invaded -- family life, friendship, sex, procreation, health, education, nature, art, citizenship, sports, and the way we contend with the prospect of death. But that's the point: once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the good they touch, we have to ask where markets belong -- and where they don't. And we can't answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.
Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square. But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided. It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades. The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicity about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.
In addition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live. As naming rights and municipal marketing appropriate the common world, they diminish its public character. Beyond the damage it does to particular goods, commercialism erodes commonality. The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be. The disappearance of the class-mixing experiment once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but also for those looking down.
Something similar has been happening throughout our society. At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It's not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.
Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.
And so, the question 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?
This post is an adapted excerpt from WHAT MONEY CAN'T BUY: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel. Published in April 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2012 by Michael J. Sandel. All rights reserved.
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