Money Is Making Us Dead Inside
Money can be a sneaky thing. Without making too much of a song and dance about it, markets and market thinking have entered spheres of life where they never were before and where, when you think about it, they never really belonged.
Want to lose a couple of pounds? You can pay for it. Want someone to stand in line for you? You can pay a professional line-stander to do so. Want to chase that indescribable shot of adrenaline you feel when unexpectedly meeting someone you’re attracted to for the first time? You can go online and pay for it. Market norms are increasingly turning us into consumers in our approach to ourselves, as well as to the rest of the world around us.
Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, has taken it upon himself to challenge the unquestioned faith in markets. His latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, asks the question: “Do we want to live in a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”
I spoke to Sandel, who has been described as the “indispensable voice of reason” by John Gray, about the increasing commodification of life, the loss of sacred institutions, and the dangers of utilitarianism and market reasoning.
VICE: What do you mean by the terms commercialism and marketization? And why should we worry about that?
Michael Sandel: In recent decades we’ve been in the grip of market faith, which says that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the public good. This assumption has gone largely unquestioned in the past 30 years. As a result from that we have drifted from being a market economy to being a market society.
Could you explain the difference between the two?
The difference is that a market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity. A market society, on the other hand, is a place where everything is up for sale. It’s a way of life in which money and market values begin to dominate every aspect of life. From family life and personal relationships to health, education, civic life, and politics. In my book, What Money Can’t Buy, I suggest that we need to step back and ask some fundamental questions about what the role of money and markets should be in a good society.