Should we always reward the highest bidder? We explore 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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As the Supreme Court handed down two major decisions favoring gay marriage on June 26th, a massive crowd erupted in cheers, waving homemade signs and singing patriotic anthems. Three months ago, on the eve of the hearings for these cases, the scene was quite different. Dale Carpenter, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, arrived in front of the building just before three in the morning and found a line of people already waiting outside - but not for their own seats. Rather, they were "line-standers:" often very poor or homeless people paid up to $6,000 to reserve spaces for wealthier patrons.

The phenomenon is one that Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard, finds disturbing. In his recent book, "What Money Can't Buy," Sandel turns his attention to our economy and asks: are there things too sacred for price tags? How do we decide the value of standing in line, whether at the airport or at the doorstep of one of our country's most essential democratic institutions? And, ultimately, is our reliance on free market principles eroding social equality?

Morality and the Market

Sandel wonders when the United States transformed from a market economy to a market society. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt lambasted “money-lenders” for their greed and encouraged greater regulation of financial markets. To combat the influences of the wealthy, Roosevelt established programs like Social Security to ensure that a citizen’s future didn’t depend on the luck of the market.

Only within the past 30 years - as leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan encouraged complete market authority- has Roosevelt's s moral imperative begun to vanish from our political dialogue. 

This was especially visible in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. While watching banks and the auto industry struggle, Sandel, like many Americans, felt let down by our market system. He hoped that the crisis would open up a national debate about what forms of finance serve the greater good — and what forms simply made the rich richer. However, the debate never came.

“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.” Sandel argues that current debates about universal health care, Medicare, and Social Security reflect this growing chasm between morality and the economy. 

America’s De-Commodification

Sandel argues that we need to engage in a national debate about what aspects of our society should be treated as commodities and which ones never should be. At the end of the day, he says, 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 queuing, 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.