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.
These are the words of Michael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard university. His article "What Isn't for Sale?" is featured in The Atlantic this week and asks some important questions:
What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money's writ not run?
What it doesn't note is that the former editor of Comment magazine, Gideon Strauss, made this exact same argument seven years ago:
We believe markets to be the best way—no, the only sane way—to structure interactions in economic life. Markets as the proper setting for economic interaction, for buying and selling, are in our view a feature of the structure of reality. So we flagrantly support the idea and the reality of a market economy . . . But this does not mean we support the idea of a market society—what Warren Bennis calls "a bottom-line society." Human life is not all about economics. Contrary to rational choice theory, we human beings do not make all of our decisions simply in terms of cost/benefit analyses. While economic life needs room to flourish, and needs protection from the encroachment of excessive government intrusion, it also needs limits.
Regardless of who said it first, the questions being asked by both Strauss and Sandel are more pressing now than ever. Everything from the backs of toilet seats to sex, kidneys, embryos, and wombs is for sale or rent. While this has been the case in the private sector for some time, the allure of the market is increasingly tantalizing for cash-strapped governments. Think, for instance, of my blog last week, in which the government chose to double down on the gambling market as a means of raising revenue, or of the language used by minister Kenney in his discussion of immigrants, visas and citizenship, or from an earlier blog yet, in which the government of Indiana was in turn influenced enough by the market to enter the market itself. Or, closer to home, consider the City of Toronto's consideration of billboards in its libraries. I could go on. The continual creep of markets into politics—a sphere with phenomenal coercive power—should be cause for great concern.
I recognize that this type of talk is likely to bring the libertarians out of their caves in high fever. There will be talk of individual liberty, free will, and the right to make up one's own mind about how to maximize pleasure so long as it does not cause harm. As Sandel notes,
Markets don't wag fingers. They don't discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.
But this tendency is precisely the problem:
This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.
In their embrace of the non-judgmental character of the markets, libertarians are willing to sell their souls to the highest bidder. Of what use are souls if moral and spiritual arguments don't matter? But those who are concerned with souls recognize that there are some things that should never be sold. While everything in life has an economic aspect to it, there are some things in life more precious than gold.