J P O'Malley

Michael Sandel interview: the marketization of everything is undermining democracy

Michael Sandel is a political philosopher and a professor at Harvard University. He is best known for his  ‘Justice’ course, which he has taught for over two decades.

Sandel first came to prominence in 1982 with his book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. The book offers a critique of liberalism, arguing that individuals’ needs are rooted with a sense of community and obligation to others, rather than the self.

Last year, Sandel published What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. When one initially begins to read this book, it seems as if Sandel is simply stating the obvious. He asks questions that many of us think about on a day to day basis, but perhaps are afraid to ask, such as: do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that we should not put a price on?

But it’s a testament to Sandel’s dexterity as a critical thinker that he can articulate this argument without injecting a righteous or pious tone.

In this short and lucid polemic, Sandel describes a culture that has developed in the west — over the past three decades — that puts market principles above all else. In such a society, solid values like virtue, decency and friendship, he argues, are being jeopardized by the lure of monetary compensation. Sandel believes, at the very least, these values should be an intrinsic part of any functioning democracy, regardless of how wealthy a society becomes.

Over an hour-long conversation, I asked him about how he thinks we might try to reform society so that a transaction is not the final word on everything.

How has the expansion of markets affected society in the West?

If you look at it, we have drifted over the last three decades from having a market economy, to becoming a market society.

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