What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets


When I left my part time job for placement year, my employer gave my colleagues and I a Waterstones voucher as a thank you gift, so I started searching for some material to take with me on the long haul to France. While I love reading, I seem to never make the time to read or justify spending money on books, which is a real shame because as I child I was the sort who sat after bed time in gap of my door just for the landing light so I could finish my book. Nowadays I tend to flick around on the internet and probably deplete my brain cells staring at Facebook all night, that’s a different blog post altogether…

There’s a pretty much infinite list of  career areas I’d like to enter when I graduate, but one of my greatest passions I’ve found is in corporate governance and social responsibility, particularly within finance which I would love the opportunity to learn more about. I come across this book as a consequence and do not joke when I say that it has changed the way I see so many, many things.



As a political philosopher and professor at Havard University, Michael J Sandel graduated with a BA in Politics and admits even at this early stage to have been intrigued by the normative implications of economics. Nowadays he explores topic by teaching graduate and undergraduate courses on the relation of markets and morals at Harvard, as well as Globalisation and Biotechnology. He is most famous for his first work, a critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, and for teaching the Justice course at Harvard University, one of the most attended courses in Harvard history.

What Money Can’t Buy examines the impact of partaking in a world in which we can find pretty much everything for sale. From education to medicine to citizenship, Sandel argues that integral pillars of society are seeing a damaging effect from assigning prices onto non material concepts. The book is written in a relaxed and often humorous style, for instance when evaluating viatical investments Sandel says “if [the dying policy holder] dies in one year, as predicted, the investor makes a killing, so to speak“. This style can lighten the mood of often depressing topics, and also means that you do not have to have a degree in economics to get the full capacity from the book.

What Money Can’t Buy is split into five overarching topics; Jumping the Queue, Incentives, How Markets Crowd Out Morals, Markets in Life and Death, and Naming Rights. Each chapter then splits into a dozen of issues demonstrating the chapter title, providing an extremely broad and diverse set of phenomena to examine, ranging from the environment, to sport, to immigration, to gift buying. The balance between serious societal issues and those (seemingly) more trivial really shows how market practices are invading non market areas, and I feel that Sandel really shows the seriousness of our actions by structuring the book in this way. In addition, when starting the book one might have a preference to read about issues in which they are already invested, but what the diverse nature of this book means is that you can do this as well as learning a lot about less familiar things.

The introduction provides a solid foundation for the rest of the book, although I must admit that I was worried at first that the rest of the book would be a repeat of the introduction, since Sandel summarised his argument so concisely from the outset. Rest assured much more depth was found and many more arguments formed as the book progressed. One part that got me particularly geared up was:

[…] our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted in a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics that afflicts so many societies today. 

In Chapter 3 Sandel refers to the Fairness argument and the Corruption argument in order to judge whether it is appropriate to put on a price on a particular activity. The Fairness argument discusses whether or not inequality is created through these market choices, while the Corruption argument asks whether the attitudes and norms of something are diminished or damaged thanks to market relations. These are two arguments that he comes back to often and expands upon extensively, but he does round up the last chapter with more of a focus on the Fairness argument by saying:

At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. […] Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

Amen brother

Amen brother

The only thing that I would note is that many of the topics (but by no means all) are examples of American life and culture, which isn’t necessarily indicative of other western countries. For instance there is a part I was reading on the tram coming home from work, where Sandel discusses municipal advertising in America (on public transport, police cars etc.). I realised that in Toulouse, there is NO advertising inside the trams, on buses, or in many metro stations. It’s really a clutter free zone, although I’ve been told this isn’t the case in Paris. In any case, it would be really cool if other academics could produce a similar account on their respective countries just to see a spectrum of countries engagement with some of the topics in What Money Can’t Buy.

It’s really difficult for me not to go into too much detail, but I urge that you give up around £7 to read this book. The language used by Sandel is so easy to read, funny, and poignant when needed, and I think that this is a great almost ‘starter-book’ to establish understanding of this field before reading heavier works.

Buy it here





LOGO copy



One response to “What Money Can’t Buy – The Moral Limits of Markets

  1. Pingback: Week 4 | a Taylor in Toulouse·

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