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Everything’s For Sale These Days–Here’s Why That Is A Problem

If everything has a price, what do we believe in anymore?

Everything’s For Sale These Days–Here’s Why That Is A Problem
[Image via Shutterstock]

You can buy anything these days: Prison cell “upgrades” in California (to live better than your fellow offender), fast track access to special lanes on highways, the right to put excess pollution into the air (“carbon credits”). In Texas, kids are even paid to read books.

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In this TED talk, Harvard University political philosopher and author Michael Sandel, argues that we have become more than a market economy. We’ve become a “market society”:

… a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. It’s a way of life, in which market thinking and market values begin to dominate every aspect of life: personal relations, family life, health, education, politics, law, civic life.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with paying kids to read. But Sandel argues that payments have perverse effects: Kids read not because they want to, but for the money. They also end up reading shorter books, because they’re easier.

Market mechanisms are fine for some things–the means of exchange has no effect on, say, a flat-screen TV you buy at the store. But that isn’t true for other activities. In fields like education, markets have the effect of “crowding out” other values, Sandel says.

Sandel, author of the book What Money Can’t Buy, says “marketizing every aspect of life” means society no longer has common experiences. “We live, shop, and play in different places.” And that’s bad for both equality and democracy.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but what it does require is that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different social backgrounds and different walks of life encounter one another, bump up against one another in the ordinary course of life, because this is what teaches us to negotiate and to abide our differences.

Sandel doesn’t argue against the market for all things. He just wants to keep it in its proper place. At the end of the talk, he asks us to debate the limits:

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… the question of markets is not mainly an economic question. It’s really a question of how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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