Michael Sandel has always been erudite, incisive, and impeccably civic-minded. Offended by the encroachment of money and “market thinking” on ever more spheres of our lives, Sandel seeks, in What Money Can’t Buy, to define “the moral limits of markets” and preserve the things we claim to cherish. To do this, he insists, we must “reason together, in public, about how to value the social goods we prize” . But while his faith in reason and in his fellow citizens is inspiring, I am skeptical that such a “robust public discourse” is going to take place any time soon. It isn’t just that our political culture is a stew of snark, invective, melodrama, and vacuity. It’s that even Sandel’s conception of what is “reasonable” to say seems so cautious and narrow.
Sandel’s pages on economics and its grotesque account of human nature are lucid, penetrating, and far too respectful. At bottom he shares more with the economists than he realizes, and that points to the pervasive problem with his book: for all his forensic skill in demonstrating the unfairness wrought by “markets,” Sandel’s understanding of “markets” is essentially that of the economists he chastises.
The very way he conceptualizes the problem is illustrative: the “moral limits” of “markets,” as if “markets” had no intrinsic moral character. Sandel is revealingly muddled on this point. Early on he remarks, “markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between admirable preferences and base ones” . yet later, when discussing gifts, he observes that the market-based, “economic case against gift-giving is not morally neutral” and that it “presupposes a certain conception of friendship” . So “markets” do wag fingers and discriminate morally; “markets” do define certain “preferences” as worthy or ignoble. And if that is the case, then the issue is not the “moral limits of markets” but a clash of different moralities.
This confusion about the moral nature of markets stems largely from Sandel’s refusal to use a single word: capitalism. Sandel doesn’t use it even once, and his employment of just about any other term—“markets” and ”consumerism” are favorites—suggests a calculated strategy of euphemism. But “markets” and “capitalism” aren’t identical, and Sandel’s implicit conflation lames his attempt at moral damage control. Markets and property systems are related, but they are not the same: markets are about exchange and money; property about ownership and power. Being about people as well as things, property systems are moral economies. They are ways of forming human personhood and relationships, and whatever we say about its “amorality,” capitalism is no different.
Sandel and other critics of “the market” need to appreciate that “market thinking” is a moral imagination. Capitalism is a telos of human ideals—the maximization of utility, the expansion of productivity, the enrichment of human- kind—and it fosters an ensemble of mores to minister to those ends—calculated avarice, the work ethic, competition, technological “innovation,” advertising and the multiplication of desires. It’s not that capitalism “wags no fingers” at pernicious or craven desires; it encourages the exponential increase of desire as a good thing in itself. The beatific vision of the capitalist moral imagination is the Gross Domestic Product: the yearly growth in the volume of goods and services whose increase is never questioned. Tapping into and perverting our deepest desires for creative and exuberant lives, capitalism offers a beguiling, insidious account of human nature and destiny.
Better John Ruskin, who averred that “the real science of political economy” instructs us to “desire and labor for the things that lead to life” and to “scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction.”11xJohn Ruskin, “Ad Valorem,” Unto This Last (1862), in Unto This Last and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (New York: Penguin, 1986) 209. Political economy was first and foremost an education in desire. Only in light of the right desires can we recognize a distinction between wealth and what Ruskin called “illth,” which causes “devastation and trouble in all directions.”22xJohn Ruskin, “The Veins of Wealth,” Unto This Last and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (New York: Penguin, 1986) 189. True wealth must be evaluated, not in the enlargement of a vacuous “productivity,” but in the volume of “full-breathed, bright-eyed, and happy-hearted human creatures.”33x Ruskin, “Ad Valorem,” 211. By this standard, much “modern wealth”—the type measured by GDP—was little more than “illth.” To Ruskin, the proliferation of illth wrought “ruin in the Economy of Heaven,” the resplendent earth itself.
It is fairly obvious that Ruskin’s “economy of heaven” has no purchase in a political culture fixated on “growth.” Liberal and conservative, all across the carping and tiresome “spectrum,” the capitalist moral vision reigns supreme. We all worship at the altars of Productivity and Wealth Creation. Sandel finds it “puzzling” that people still pay obeisance to markets in the midst of their most dismal failure in eighty years. Living in America, he shouldn’t find it puzzling at all. from the Puritans onward, most Americans have believed that capitalism is divine. Under a firmament inscribed with “the American Dream,” God and Mammon have composed their ancient hostilities and formed a lucrative partnership.
Most Americans still have faith in “the American Dream” and cannot imagine their lives otherwise. Though he is far more reflective than his fellow citizens, Sandel is a believer, too—that is why he raises questions about fairness and corruption, but not about the nature of “affluence and prosperity.” He cannot wonder out loud if much of our “wealth” is really just a pile of “illth.” To do so would require him to challenge the American Dream itself, but that would put him beyond the limits of what it is “reasonable” to say in our imaginatively impoverished public life.
The American Dream is the very problem, not something to “reclaim,” as progressives love to put it. Building a beloved community on capitalist property was always delusional, however “productive” of “affluence and prosperity.” As the twenty-first century reveals to Americans the exorbitant costs of their Dream, we will need thinking as clear and generous as Sandel’s—but much more unreasonable.