Markets and the delivery of public services

“The question of markets is really a question about 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 honour and money cannot buy?” These are the questions posed by Harvard politics professor Michael Sandel in his recent book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’.

The book is not a polemic. Nor is it an outraged argument for one particular point of view. It is, in fact, much more powerful than that. It is a calm, rational explanation of how markets have encroached into all aspects of our lives. And it should, in my view, be required reading for everyone involved in the design, management or delivery of public services.

Using a broad range of everyday examples, Sandel shows how the values of the market – so beloved by economists as promoting the ‘efficient’ distribution of resources – have overwhelmed almost every aspect of our lives, from education and medicine to sports and family life.

In Sandel’s view, the problem with markets is that they are not morally neutral. Far from it, in fact. When we use markets to allocate a particular social good, he says, they change the character of that good and the way we perceive its worth. In their quest for efficiency, markets overlook less tangible values such as fairness, solidarity and social justice. So while money can buy most things, Sandel argues that there are some things that it should not be able to buy.

Take the ‘life settlement’ industry, for example, in which investors buy life insurance policies (for a percentage of the insurance payout) from older people who no longer need them, continue to pay the pay the premiums and then collect the benefit when the original policyholder dies. This is all completely legal and in line with the values of the market, but is it right for investors to, in Sandel’s words, ‘bet against life’?

And what about sport, in which the increased use of corporate suites and ‘skyboxes’ to bring in additional income to clubs divides fans – literally – according to their willingness and ability to pay. This may not sound too bad when we’re talking about football or even if we apply the same principles to first class rail travel or to ‘speedy boarding’ at the airport. But what about the school that your children go to, your ability to see a doctor or how long it takes the police to arrive when you dial 999?

According to Sandel, market and commercial values also erode our collective humanity. The more things money can buy, the less we share a common experience. “Democracy does not require perfect equality,” he argues, “but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of ordinary life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”

This book does not give us the answers. It is not even clear if there are any answers. But we have an obligation to ourselves, to others and to future generations to think very, very carefully about Sandel’s questions and the issues that they raise for us all.

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