WHAT MONEY CAN'T BUY: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pp., $27.
Lately, it seems, almost everything is for sale. In some American cities, solo drivers can buy their way into the carpool lane and zoom past traffic. By paying donors you can buy eggs and sperm alike in order to produce a child, and you can pay a surrogate mother to carry the fetus to term. Advertisers can pay for the right to put their messages on police cars, learning materials used in schools, even people's faces.
Is nothing sacred? That's the question raised by Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor known for tackling philosophical questions in a popular context, in his new book, "What Money Can't Buy." Sandel is appalled by rapid spread of a market ethos that promotes the buying and selling of almost anything, and has assembled an impressive catalog of examples, including the paid line-waiters who help lobbyists monopolize seats at Congressional hearings. "Without quite realizing it," Sandel asserts, "without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society."
The trouble with such a society, in Sandel's view, is that it purchases what looks to be freedom, but only for each according to his means, and at the very high price of fairness, decency and social cohesion. When the power of money knows no ethical bounds, the author asserts, inequality and corruption flourish, and these two afflictions are at the heart of his critique. "The commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more," he writes, since people can now use it to buy political power, excellent schools, superior medical care and other things most of us feel everyone should have access to.
He's right that things may be getting out of hand. Of course, people have always used money for such purposes (and may even wonder what else it is for). In the late Middle Ages it could be used to shorten purgatory time through the purchase of indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church. Before the Civil War there was a healthy market in the buying and selling of human beings in this country, and during the conflict that finally ended slavery, northern men could buy their way out of military service for $300.
These practices are no longer tolerated, yet not every transaction that strikes us repugnant ought to be banned. The buying and selling of sex, for example, has only driven the practice underground, denying prostitutes the protection of the law and exposing them to greater risk of violence, disease and exploitation. The ban on human organ sales may protect sellers from themselves -- and the squeamish from what may seem gruesome transactions -- but also dooms potential buyers in need of a kidney.
And that is the problem with Sandel's book. The subtitle suggests it will tell us "the moral limits of markets," but all it really tells us is that such limits ought to exist. Where they should be remains no more clear at the end of this volume than at the beginning.