One nation, ruled by money

April 20, 2012: 7:29 AM ET

It's said that every man has his price, but what's the cost to society when everything is for sale? A review of What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by political philosopher Michael J. Sandel.

By Scott Olster, editor

FORTUNE --  How much is the space on your forehead worth? Would you sell that especially personal piece of real estate to an interested advertiser if you were strapped for cash? How about your ability to give birth? Or maybe your organs? What's your price? After all, as the proverb goes, every man has one.

In What Money Can't Buy, Harvard government professor Michael J. Sandel argues that it might not be that simple. He takes readers on an exhaustive tour of the many ways in which markets and market thinking have infiltrated our lives, sometimes to our detriment.

Whether it's buying ad space on human bodies, paying schoolchildren to read more books, or giving drug addicts money in exchange for accepting sterilization treatment, Sandel argues that we've suffered from the penetration of market forces into aspects of the human experience that were traditionally thought to be either sacred or beyond monetary value. "The commercialism of the last two decades has displayed a distinctive kind of boundlessness, emblematic of a world in which everything is for sale," he writes.

While commercializing our most intimate possessions and those that belong to others is nothing new (see under: slavery and prostitution), Sandel suggests that the past few decades have been an especially victorious time for market thinking. He has a point. Over the past 20 to 30 years, we have increasingly placed our faith in privatization and the power of financial incentives. We hire private security companies to run our prisons, send mercenaries to fight our wars, and pay for-profit schools to educate our children, all with varying degrees of success.

The price we pay for this behavior plays out in several ways, Sandel argues. First off, poorer people are impacted disproportionately by the commercialization of personal space. How many affluent people are lining up to turn their houses or bodies into billboards? In this way, the decision to sell isn't necessarily as independent and free as it may look. In a society increasingly driven by financial power, moreover, the wealthy hold even better hands than they would otherwise. Why bother encouraging your kid to study hard if you can simply grease his path into Harvard or Yale with the promise of a massive donation?

Some of these tradeoffs and incentives may have noble intentions, such as putting more money in the hands of the needy, or encouraging students to hit the books. Yet they also change how we value these activities. Suddenly, doing well in school becomes about pocketing extra change rather than learning for its own sake. Selling your blood puts money in your wallet, but it also deprives you of the moral reward of altruism. The behaviors may be the same, but the motivations have changed. As a result their meaning also changes, not always for the better.

When it comes to acts of charity, many economists would say that there is only so much generosity to go around. In a world filled with need, offering a few bucks to encourage behavior that helps the whole group is a safe way to ensure the job gets done. Fair enough. But are good intentions a finite resource? Or are they, as Sandel suggests, "more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise?"

At times, market principles put in place to make an altruistic act look even more attractive do just the opposite. Sandel cites the case of a small village in the Swiss mountains called Wolfenschiessen that was once a candidate to house a nuclear waste site. When surveyed by economists, a majority of residents said they'd accept the site as an act of civic duty. The economists then added money to the equation, offering the residents as much as $8,700 each to accept the waste site. At this point, support for the deal plummeted among the villagers. From their perspective, the cash turned a sacrifice for the greater good into a plain old bribe.

Sandel offers us example after example of the many ways in which financial incentives and other market forces now dictate just about every aspect of our lives, creating a world that is richer in dollars but poorer in moral and social cohesion. At each step, he poses the same question: "Do we really want to live this way?" It's a fair question that get asked a lot nowadays, by everyone from Occupy Wall Street protesters to Citigroup shareholders who recently rejected the bank's executive compensation proposal.

Sandel doesn't address the more challenging question, whether there's a viable alternative to the market-driven hamster wheel that we're apparently trapped on. Did we as a society sacrifice whatever core values we once had as we scaled ever-higher financial heights?

In the wake of our most recent economic crisis, it's about time we start to consider the costs of pervasive commercialization along with its benefits. Just the same, it's easy enough to point out flaws in the world we inhabit. If you want to mend that world, it's helpful to suggest what ought to go in its stead. Sandel deserves credit for sounding the alarm, but he also leaves us holding the bag, wondering if there's a reset button hiding somewhere we haven't looked.

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.

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