Friday, August 30, 2013

Limits of markets - I

Michael Sandel is a professor of philosophy at Harvard University who has the status of a rock star. He has put his Harvard lectures online for free viewing. His most famous book is What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets where he reflects on market norms replacing social norms. He worries about a market economy inexorably turning into a market society. He writes:
 The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market. 
He says that "market triumphalism" of the past few decades has resulted in markets becoming detached from morals. Postulating that greed led to excessive risk taking is only a partial diagnosis.The most profound change is the expansion of markets and market values into areas of life where they don't belong, eg. health, education, family life, nature, civic duties, etc. These are moral and political issues not just economic ones. He writes:
Consider the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the outsourcing of war to private military contractors. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, private contractors have actually outnumbered U.S. military troops.)
Consider the eclipse of public police forces by private security firms—especially in the U.S. and Britain, where the number of private guards is more than twice the number of public police officers.
Or consider the pharmaceutical companies’ aggressive marketing of prescription drugs to consumers in rich countries. (If you’ve ever seen the television commercials on the evening news in the United States, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness but a rampant epidemic of erectile dysfunction.)
Consider too the reach of commercial advertising into public schools, the sale of “naming rights” to parks and civic spaces; the marketing of “designer” eggs and sperm for assisted reproduction; the outsourcing of pregnancy to surrogate mothers in the developing world; the buying and selling, by companies and countries, of the right to pollute; a system of campaign finance in the U.S. that comes close to permitting the buying and selling of elections.
These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted. 

Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?
PS: Micael Sandel on Fora TV.

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