Michael Sandel can’t buy me love.

Michael Sandel spoke to a large audience at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster last night, an event organised by the How To Academy, and introduced by Andrew Neil.

Very brief talk, max 40 minutes, introducing his latest book “What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets“, in his usual minimally-scripted audience-participatory style, and therefore without subsequent Q&A.

Really only one point to his lecture and his brief book. Virtues cannot be bought and sold, evaluated by the markets, they need to be valued by proper public discourse, difficult though that is.

He described the tendency to not only talk in terms of market-economy, but to accept “market society” as leading to impoverished democratic political discourse. That is, not all transactions in society are strictly economic and the appeal of allowing spurious market concepts to replace difficult public debate on values is damaging.

He used audience participation to tease out people’s real views by voting – on the very topical NHS proposals  to financially incentivise dementure diagnoses, and the example (from his book) of selling to the highest bidder the right to shoot a single member of an endangered species annually to fund conservation for the population. By turning the nobs with “what-if” variations (*) with different audience members, which naturally included several GP’s, he drew out what we really valued. Interestingly, the individual vs population example turned completely when a participant suggested a human example auctioning the right for one individual to beat their spouse, in order to fund care for the wider population of victims. Focusses the mind.

He pointed out that the very idea of incentive as a market factor is in fact a relatively new concept , not mentioned by Adam Smith for example, and mentioned maybe only once each in Presidential and Prime Ministerial speeches in the early 80’s, whereas now to “incentivise” was practically de-rigeur. The politics of a market society.

The bottom line was two linked factors – the acceptance of allowing the market to establish policy meant political debate was impoverished and a source of much dissatisfaction with the political process in western democracies. And the underlying reason for that dissatisfaction was that people inherently knew there were other values, virtues, being corroded by the market incentivisation – patient-doctor trust in the first example, human and ecological rights and responsibilities in the others, and many more. Values that would previously have been called, or based upon, the virtues.

And why are virtues “corroded” by marketisation? Because they are quite self-evidently not the variables of economic theory and textbooks. They are not “scarce” resources that are consumed, even though they are involved in transactions. The application of trust engenders more trust, the giving of love creates more love, the giving of rights creates obligations to reciprocal rights – virtues grow by use, they are not consumed by use. Treating them as market variables corrodes, devalues, distorts and destroys them. The market is not neutral, it has downward causation on the value of the goods involved in the transaction. They are devalued by being bought and sold, whereas intrinsically we value them.

In order to establish the social value of these goods we really need proper public discourse in politics – the kind that leaves us feeling satisfied with the policies established, so we remain supportive of their application. A difficult process for sure, but necessary. Leaving them to the market devalues and destroys them.

Not new, ’twas ever thus, yet despite the 2008 crash we still don’t seem to have learned. What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? – again.

[Post Note (*) Sandel’s original equivalents of trolleyology, but without the trolleys! Plenty more in his on-line Harvard lectures.]

2 thoughts on “Michael Sandel can’t buy me love.”

  1. What is the connection between virtues that indeed are not goods, and endangered species which are not created neither by love nor by shooting once per year?

    I’m happy to allow virtues to be socially valued, nourished and multiplied by political discourse. Just leave markets alone when you are dealing with any type of limited resource.

    By the way, the person who suggested extension to the selling of a wife-beating rights just demonstrates total ignorance of some basic concepts, lying at the base of markets, ethics, and indeed all forms of human cooperation.

  2. The connection – quite simple – a virtue would be to love the animal and/or the species (or both). That becomes part of the transaction deciding whether to shoot or save them, and therefore part of the market, if (IF) you turn the shooting into an auction.

    Sure – don’t add virtues to markets that wouldn’t otherwise include virtues – that’s the point in fact. By extending market economy to market society (beyond economic markets) we bring in choices that look like a market, but really shouldn’t be – precisely the point.

    No, they get the point – as you do. Wife beating shouldn’t be a (economic) market. Same as the endangered species example, but with human instead of animal.

    The point – if we want economies to work as markets, we must be careful not to bring goods whose values are virtues into those markets.

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