Is there a limit to the wisdom of the market?

Why can you sell sperm but not your vote? Why is there pressure to set up a market in kidneys but not in children? These conundrums are investigated by the political philosopher Michael Sandel, of Harvard University, in his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. It is sure to become a reference point in future bioethics debates.

Sandel’s target is not specifically bioethical. His thesis is that Western societies, especially the US, have moved from being a market economy to a market society, in which everything can be valued and exchanged for money.

“If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

“This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.”

The point he makes is that things which can be bought and sold are commodities. Everyone agrees that some things – like people -- should be never become commodities. But there is no public agreement on why or which things these are. Sandel calls for a “debate about the moral limits of markets”. ~ The Atlantic, April 2012

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