What votes, children and friendship have in common

In a new book, renowned philosopher and ‘lion of the lecture hall’ Michael Sandel argues that the free market has gone too far: there are some things, he says, that should never be bought.

Fancy the chance to kill a rare rhino? Want a baby on the cheap? Fed up of waiting in queues, or unsatisfied with the quality of your prison cell? There may be a solution – for the right price.

In the modern world of global free markets, almost anything is for sale somewhere: babies, endangered animals, spare organs, a wife – the list goes on. In China, you can even pay a ‘regret emissary’ to make difficult apologies on your behalf.

And for those who cannot afford all these luxuries, we all have assets we can sell. Your body, for one: companies will pay good money for advertising space on your clothes, or even your forehead. Or you could make a few thousand pounds gambling your health on a drug trial.

That might seem like a bad idea. But if both buyer and seller are willing and sane, can we really object? Free-market libertarians think not. Neither the government nor anybody else, they say, has a right to prevent a free transaction between consenting adults.

But this view has come under attack from one of the world’s best-known philosophers. In his new book, What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel argues that the unrestricted free market is in danger of corrupting public life. The act of paying for something, he says, can actually reduce its true value.

For instance: is it possible to buy a friend? Most people find this idea absurd. But can you teach somebody to appreciate literature by paying them to read? That is the idea behind the Texan school project in which children are paid $2 for every book they get through. This might make children read more, Sandel says, but for all the wrong reasons: like friendship, learning must be based on love, not money.

Private security firms hire out soldiers to the highest bidder – more than half of the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan were privately employed. Is this just efficiency, or does it cheapen war?

Votes cannot be bought (‘yet’, add pessimists grimly). But political influence can: lobbyists spend vast sums of money to gain access to leaders. Elite education, healthcare, advertising space in public parks: all have their price.

Buy the grace of God

Sandel’s book is not a shopping list banning certain items from sale. It is simply a call for a fuller public debate about what is too important to be sold. We cannot allow the market to determine what we value, he says; it might make us richer, but only at the price of moral poverty.

To libertarians, this is blasphemy. Free markets do not take morality out of life; they just allow people to make their decisions. People should be allowed to choose what they value for themselves, they say – not have morals imposed by pious philosophers.

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel, is published by Farrar Straus Giroux (April 2012)

You Decide

  1. Should a healthy person be allowed to cut out and sell their kidney just for cash?
  2. Does paying people to read books diminish the value of reading?


  1. Which of the following things should be available for purchase: husbands, polar bears, votes, the Mona Lisa, university places, the right to drive in bus lanes. Make a chart, compare notes with a partner and explain your decisions.
  2. Research the ‘free market’ and write a short article outlining its pros and cons.

Some People Say...

“The best things in life are free.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely it’s always been like this?
Well, people have always agonised about this question. But attitudes to specific things have changed hugely. In 19th Century Britain, for instance, many liberals believed that banning child labour showed a blatant disregard for children’s right to work! Still, weare living in a time when the market is more trusted than ever before as a way of organising society
But it works, right?
Mostly. But take this experiment: mothers at a school kept arriving late to pick up their children, so fines were imposed. Bizarrely, mothers became even less punctual. Instead of being deterred, they saw the fine as a payment and stopped feeling guilty about being late! This is often cited as an example where financial incentives don’t work.

Word Watch

A baby on the cheap
It is fairly common for Western couples to pay women in India to bear and give birth to a child for them. The cost is as low as £5,000 – a huge amount in developing countries, but entirely affordable for many Americans.
Prison cell
In certain American jails, non-violent prisoners can pay to upgrade to a more luxurious prison cell away from other inmates.
Free-market libertarians
‘Libertarianism’ is liberalism taken to extremes: libertarians believe in a small state with few powers (if any) and as few laws as possible.
Michael Sandel
As the teacher of Harvard’s most popular course, Sandel is the closest thing academia has to a celebrity. His crowded lectures – now televised – were entitled ‘Justice – What’s the right thing to do?’
Lobby groups try to influence government policy on behalf of special interests. Sometimes they are charities representing minorities such as disabled people. But often they are funded by businesses. Lobbying is particularly powerful in American politics, to the extent that some see it as a threat to true democracy.

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