What Money Can't Buy, Michael J. Sandel - Book Summary

The book mainly explains the mindset of those who drive the direction of the market. For example, “how can ads or product recommendations encourage you to buy so much?” or “why can all goods be produced at a certain price?”. From here a few questions arise: what is the proper role of the market today, and what must we do to uphold the ethics of trading (something money can't buy).

About the author

Michael J. Sandel is a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, USA. He has been extremely popular among authors of books on the subject of justice and morality for the past 30 years. His most famous book is Justice: What's the right thing to do?

Target audience

Any critique of business ethics or the workings of the business world will be disclosed in this book. If you are interested in economics and want to build a better world, then every page of this book is waiting for you to explore.

Market thinking gradually appears in all aspects of social life – that is the challenge for us

Over the course of 30 years, mainstream economists have maintained their faith in the free market. But since the 2008 economic crisis, this trust has been fiercely tested through many controversies. These debates are mainly about how market thinking has driven the economy as it deregulation of the traditional market and operates under the new principle: “Everything is deliverable and sell".

Moreover, market thinking has been ingrained in more and more layers of society during the past 30 years. Market thinking greatly affects people's lives more than we think, from education, health care, security, etc. For example in the US, you can pay a sum of about 1500 dollars to has his own doctor and his personal phone number. Another example is the police in the US and UK. They hardly participate in security work because private organizations are deeply involved in maintaining and strengthening security measures, prisons. In Dallas, Texas, the school encourages students to read books by paying them $2 each.

The replication of this line of thinking dates back to the end of the cold war in the 1980s, a time when the free market was the primary "tool" for profit. For example, when people deregulate the stock market, stock prices immediately skyrocket. As countries gradually liberalized their economies, the quality of their output improved, leading to a threefold increase in world output during that period.

Because of the benefits that market thinking brings, people immediately tend to accept the free market without knowing that this thinking model is taking more place in their lives. This development forces us to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in.

Achievements of market thinking – concerns about justice

The spread of the market thinking model raises three main concerns: social justice, the deterioration of human values, and the promotion of erroneous ideas. But the main issue we talk about is still social justice. What everyone can clearly see, when more and more things are brought to market, anyone with money can buy what they want, more broadly, money is a springboard for status.

For example, at an airport or an amusement park, to get a priority seat in the check-in line, you only need to pay a small fee. Or contacting the doctor outside of business hours, all goes well if it's coupled with the money.

Moreover, when everything is being traded, the poor are mostly forced to barter cheaply to get what they want.

Economists do not have enough awareness of market ethics

Have you ever accepted to have to do a boring job because of lack of money? If not, consider yourself lucky, but if everything is arranged, do you feel that it is unfair? Have you ever wished you were rich to get out of that predicament?

It sounds harsh, but in a certain sense, the labor you put in is just a "commodity" that can be bought and sold. This is the market mindset. This mindset has fueled the economy for the past three decades, and it is encroaching on several other aspects of our lives, raising ethical concerns among us.

For example, the market mindset helps the poor earn up to $7,500 if they participate in safety trials for drugs of unknown origin. The ethical issue here is of great concern: does human conscience allow us to take advantage of the survival of others for profit? Is it too unfair to force the poor to choose between their own survival and potential danger to the community?

Economists have continuously researched and reformed, but they have not really reached the bottom of the market thinking. If not corrected soon, more and more immoral things will happen in society.

Contrary to market theory, we should pay more attention to altruism

Have you ever wondered why the bakery on the street corner is so eager to sell cakes? Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, argues that trading is based not on benevolence but on the lust for money. He believes that it is the preferences and desires of each individual that are the factors that make the economy gradually form the basis of today's market thinking.

To encourage the residents of a neighborhood to donate blood, economists will choose to reward these people with a sum of money rather than impacting on inherent human compassion. As we can see, the abuse of money or assigning to any physical object a price list is not necessarily effective. With blood donation, we donate for the community, this noble act has more meaning in it than just receiving a gratuity.

Since then, when the market thinking expands, the first problem to face is the decay of the concept of humanity.

Not everything is for sale

We value the things in life based on many reasons, not necessarily their price. But what if everything had a price? Do you feel those things are cheap?

Let's consider the importance of fireworks on America's Independence Day - July 4. What if a city made people pay to see fireworks? Of course, this will lose fairness in the social classes, the poor will not be able to afford a ticket. But more than that, charging to see fireworks on National Day will reduce the value and meaning of this holiday because it is the day when an entire nation thrives to celebrate independence and freedom.

Or at a famous charity program in the US: "Project Prevention", philanthropists pay women addicted to drugs to accept sterilization. The main aim of the project was to minimize the number of children addicted to drugs and the program was a great success. Despite the positive results, the media and the American people still pose a question: "Is doing so in accordance with human morality?"

As you can see, there are things that when converted as material values ​​will bring extremely positive results, but there are "items" that should not be, or even cannot be converted. As well as the question of morality will always be raised, because morality always exists throughout the development and perfection of human society.

Should market thinking be accepted?

The only way to find out what we can exchange and what we can't is to open a discussion on press orders. Although that will raise up mixed opinions in the community, only then can market thinking be selected to be applied in accordance with human morality.

Discussing the merits of this line of thinking also leads us to a more fundamental question: "What is good for life?". Besides, we also have to ask ourselves, how do we want this society to develop and form? How important are justice and purpose? Which of the above two is more valuable?

Message conveyed

Market thinking has emerged and evolved over the past 30 years, and it's present in many aspects of life, even where it shouldn't be. This can lead to social injustice and devalue many aspects of life. We therefore need to explicitly discuss whether this line of thinking should be "welcome" in today's increasingly modern society.