Reviewed by Mattijs van Maasakkers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J. Sandel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256pp

The role of markets and market-based approaches in environmental policy has been discussed for many decades, at least since John Robert Dales’ essay Pollution, Property and Prices was published in 1968. The emergence of markets as a policy tool since then has extended far beyond the environmental realm. In his most recent book, Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel describes a diverse set of markets and incentive programs, showing that this approach has expanded into a broad range of new social and political arenas. Based on brief descriptions of a variety of economic incentives and markets, like carbon offsets and the practice of selling naming rights to nature trails, Sandel’s core argument, and stern warning, is that market-oriented approaches can “crowd out morals,” to the detriment of society.

While this critique is not necessarily new, the scope and ambition of Sandel’s work reflect the fact that the creation of economic incentives and full-fledged markets has become widespread practice. By describing dozens of incentive programs and markets, in sometimes surprising fields, from education to immigration, and from family planning to blood drives, Sandel raises two profound and connected objections to the use of markets. The first is that the use of economic incentives might not be fair. Sandel mounts a case against markets by using (sometimes hypothetical) examples of markets that would be unacceptable to many, if not all, people. Organ donations are one such example, since Sandel believes strong moral objections exist against the idea of allowing people in dire economic circumstances to sell their kidneys. The second objection Sandel places at the heart of his case against markets is corruption. Here, the author is worried not so much about bribes, but about the notion that buying and selling certain things degrades their moral importance. Sandel uses the example of creating a market for the adoption of babies, which he poses might undermine the norms underlying the parent-child relationship.

While Sandel effectively argues that there are “moral limits of markets,” it is less clear where and how to recognize those limits in specific policy areas or social arenas. This book is clearly written for a broad audience, and as such, it provides a useful warning in an era where efficiency, the market and incentives are often described as unmitigated “goods” in public discourse. This book not only shows that there are certain things that cannot be bought, it also presents a set of compelling arguments that certain things should not be for sale. Whether or not environmental pollution, or ecosystem goods and services, to use a more popular term, belong to that category is not immediately clear from these arguments.

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