Everyone's Got a Price

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Fitzgerald

Harvard's rock-star moralist says capitalism is ruining America.

Would you pay your kid to read a book? Do you think crack addicts should be paid to get sterilized? Are skyboxes bad for America? Michael Sandel thinks we need to ask these kinds of questions.

Sandel is probably the world's most relevant living philosopher, thanks to the hugely popular course he teaches at Harvard, "Justice," which was broadcast on PBS and the BBC. His 2009 book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? topped sales charts here and elsewhere; he's a sought-after speaker all over the world.

The popularity of his "Justice" course says Sandel, 59, has to do with its questions, not him. It's true that he cuts an unprepossessing figure: a slight, trim man who wears a suit and tie when he teaches. Yet he's a quick and creative thinker--as president of his high-school class in California, he got then-governor Ronald Reagan to address the school by sending him a six-pound bag of jelly beans, Reagan's favorite candy.

In a small irony, Sandel's jelly-bean gesture is a form of incentive, one of the things he challenges in his new book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The book takes on what Sandel calls the "imperialism" of economic ideas. He thinks we're in thrall to markets and use them to answer questions that markets aren't meant to answer. "We are in the grip of a way of looking at the world and social life and even personal relations that is dominated by economic ways of thinking. That's an impoverished way of looking at the world," he says.

One would expect Wall Street to figure prominently in this book, but What -Money Can't Buy says almost nothing about it. Instead, he challenges all of us to look at how we've allowed markets to pervade our public life. He argues that the spread of market philosophy has created what he calls "a consumerist idea of freedom," in which we think our highest freedom is what we consume. …