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Michael Sandel and the moral limits of markets

[THIS WEEK] Sandel is a must-read for those unesy with market forces

When venture capitalist and Tory donor Adrian Beecroft rubbished Vince Cable’s criticisms of his recent report to the PM as being ‘ideological not economic’, before really putting the boot in and calling him a ‘Socialist’ in The Daily Telegraph, he articulated a pernicious belief of our times: that the application of economic metrics is a value-free endeavour, outlying of any moral, ethical or political concerns.

A new book from Michael Sandel takes issue with this view. Sandel is a charismatic speaker, a Harvard professor and former Reith lecturer, known for his book Justice and his spirited leading of public debates. He’s no red either. As he makes clear in the early pages of his must-read What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the market economy is generally a ‘valuable and effective tool for organising productive activity’. His issue is with our recent drift from ‘having a market economy, to being a market society… in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavour’.

From paying for drug addicts’ to be sterilised, kids to read books or cashing in on the life insurance you have taken out on an employee when they die, Sandel explores market mechanism’s extension into areas previously off-limits, such as healthcare, schooling, policing, even our bodies.

For Sandel, often these seemingly market efficient transactions have a corroding – possibly irreversible – effect on our civic life, as well as accelerating a gap between rich and poor.

His neat parsing of exactly how and why is invigorating. In helping to articulate the problems behind an ill-defined unease with market values permeating every available physical, social and mental space, Sandel offers us citizens and architects a vocabulary of resistance. There’s also reassurance that all those high-minded ideas of civic space and those twee, hackneyed but admirable phrases in designing buildings like, ‘the gift to the city’, are not just worth fighting for, but integral to a civilised society.

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