Should we always reward the highest bidder? The moral limits of markets with Harvard's Michael Sandel, author of “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.”

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Harvard professor Michael Sandel has become famous for helping us think about moral dilemmas. He urges us to consider the question: why do we make certain choices? And what is our rationale?

In his recent book, "What Money Can't Buy," Sandel turns his attention to our economy to ask: are there things too sacred for price tags? How do we decide the value of standing in line, or the cost of war? And he warns us — we may need to reconsider the limits of our market economy.

Morality and the Market

In the wake of 2008’s financial crisis, as he watched banks and the auto industry struggle, Sandel, like many Americans, felt let down by our market system. "Markets, by themselves, unregulated," he decided, "don’t serve the public good very well.” He hoped that the crisis would open up a national debate about what forms of finance serve the greater good — and what forms simply make the rich richer — but he was disappointed.

“Even after the financial crisis brought our economy to the brink, we did not really have that debate,” he says. “The terms of political argument didn’t really change. We had some debate about de-regulation, but no fundamental debate about the role of markets in a good society.”

But the nation hasn’t always separated the market from morality. During the Great Depression, FDR lambasted “money-lenders” for their greed and encouraged greater regulation of financial markets. He started programs, such as Social Security, to ensure that a citizen’s future didn’t depend on the luck of the markets.

It's only in the past 30 years, as leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan encouraged complete market authority, that FDR's moral imperative has begun to subside in our political dialogue. Sandel argues that current debates about universal health care, Medicare, and Social Security show the increased separation between morality and the economy.

“In so many areas of life — health, education, the environment, the way we fight our wars,” he explains, “we have moved more and more, almost without realizing it, in the direction of market assumptions, [or] treating all goods as if they were commodities.”

The Danger of Rewarding the Highest Bidder

Take war, for example. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were more paid military contractors on the ground than there were American troops. Without any public debate, Sandel says, the business of war was outsourced to private companies.

Even far more mundane tasks have become tainted by the market. Sandel gives the example of standing in line at the airport — if you’re rich enough to fly first class, you don’t have to wait as long. If you’re even richer, you can take a private jet and bypass lines altogether.

Paying to get out of waiting in line might seem like no big deal, but Sandel says it can have unexpected effects. In Washington, it’s common for lobbyists to pay others to wait in line for them so that they can attend a congressional hearing without the drudgery of cueing.

“It may look small, when you look at one or two examples,” he says. “[But] do we really want access to representative government to be allocated according to the highest bidder?”

America’s De-Commodification

If we aren’t comfortable with the idea of paying for access to representative government, Sandel argues, we need to engage in a national debate about what aspects of our society can be commoditized and what should never be. At the end of the day, we can’t always decide who gets things by who is willing to pay the most for them.

“There may be other systems of distribution for rock concerts, or baseball games, or attending lectures, or for that matter attending universities,” he explains. “Sometimes the principal of cueing, or first come first serve, is more fair than markets. Sometimes [it’s] the principal of need, who really needs to see the doctor in the emergency room first. So I think we have to look, case by case, good by good, social practice by social practice, and have a public debate about where market principles should govern and where other values should govern.”

That debate might take years, but, for Sandel, it’s worth the wait.