Monday, 18 June 2012

Not for sale

The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and former Reith Lecturer has been mentioned on this site before, as a search will reveal, but his latest book sounds worth drawing to your attention. Here are some extracts, reproduced from his article in The Atlantic. The whole article, and I am sure the book, is worth reading. (See the review by Rowan Williams.) Sandel writes:
"As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life."
He speaks about the dent put in this prestige by the economic crisis, and denies that the root problem was simply greed:
"Some say the moral failing at the heart of market triumphalism was greed, which led to irresponsible risk-taking. The solution, according to this view, is to rein in greed, insist on greater integrity and responsibility among bankers and Wall Street executives, and enact sensible regulations to prevent a similar crisis from happening again. This is, at best, a partial diagnosis. While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger was and is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t."
So, of course, most of his book is about this debate. There is nothing divine or absolute about markets. We decide what is for sale, and how the rules of the market will operate. But "without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society," says Sandel. "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."

Sandel is no Catholic, but his thought has a direct bearing on Catholic social thought and needs to be discussed in those circles.

1 comment:

  1. I was very glad to see his article in The Atlantic and hope this issue will be discussed more prominently. I think it is very hard to talk about in a public way without confusing the real issue with several peripheral issues. He might be misunderstood as maligning the American free-market model as weighed against European social welfare states. But this is not his point: rule-based contracts and prices have pushed moral norms out of the decisionmaking process even in socialist systems which were once thought to be the enemy (or antidote) of the free market.