Michael Sandel is a storyteller. His stories are amusing ones like those in Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, but Sandel’s stories urge us to look deeper: to look meaning rather than just personal gain. Perhaps not everything should be for sale. Sandel’s stories make us wonder what our responsibilities are in the marketplace economists have made for us. He prods us to ask ourselves if the world we have is the one we want. Judging from the reaction of the populace to the presidential election in 2016, I would guess most of us have are not satisfied with what we have wrought.
The good news is that we can make different choices. We just have to think about it. Do we want advertising for McDonald’s on public buildings, schools, or police cars? Do we want someone betting how soon we will die so as to take advantage of our life insurance policies? Do we want a cash payment to store nuclear waste near our homes? Sandel presents these real, documented offerings to us and shows us what the outcomes have been.
This is an easy, non-taxing read. There are no references to philosophers and only the barest rudiments of what is called economic theory, and yet the work is permeated with “the stuff” of these two disciplines. It is the raw materials, the everyday dilemmas with which we need to work. I have seen some of Sandel’s examples from newspapers in recent years, but there were still several I never encountered before. Like the one about the school in Israel where the parents kept showing up late to pick up their children. The teachers levied a fine for parents late for pick-up, and transgressions actually increased. The parents began to regard the fine as a fee. When school officials removed the fine a couple of months later, transgressions increased again. It became the norm to disregard the pick-up time, and more parents became aware that others were transgressing. They began to think it was okay to make the teacher work overtime. In this case, I guess I would suggest making the fine really punitive, not merely suggestive, to see if that made a difference, though exceptions for real excuses would have to be considered.
Sandel had me laughing and cringing: what about hunting Atlantic walrus in Canada? Atlantic walrus had become so rare in the 20th Century that Inuits were the only ones allowed to hunt them. Inuit leaders asked the Canadian government if they could sell some of their walrus quota to big-game hunters for $6,500.
”[Big game hunters] for not come for the thrill of the chase or the challenge of stalking an elusive prey. Walruses are unthreatening creatures that move slowly and are no match for hunters with guns…C.J. Chivers compared walrus hunting under Inuit supervision to ‘a long boat ride to shoot a very large beanbag chair.’ The guides maneuver the boat to within fifteen yards of the walrus and tell the hunter when to shoot…The appeal of such a hunt is difficult to fathom…[but] markets don’t pass judgement on the desires they satisfy.”
Another desire Sandel discusses is prostitution, something that has been in the news just this week when France decided to fine buyers paying for sex. Apparently legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands has led to gang control of the business, and in Germany human trafficking has continued unabated. Sandel asks whether we can really still bare-facedly argue that sex between “consenting” adults when one is paid is without moral ramifications. “Certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold:” prostitution could be regarded as a form of corruption that demeans women and promotes bad attitudes toward sex. This is the argument used in Scandinavian countries, and now France.
Towards the end of the book, Sandel quotes two economists who believe that virtue and love are scarce resources. (Among some of us, I am sure that is true.) He points out that some philosophers have taken another view: that civic virtue dies if it is not nourished, practiced, and that it grows, not depletes, with every instance of it. Love similarly. Love is not something we should preserve, but spend at every opportunity, for its return is exponential.
Sandel wades into many hot-button issues and calmly explains alternate ways of looking at a problem. He is clear enough for first year college students, even high school students. His moral and ethical ways of thinking allow us to challenge current thinking about issues facing us today. I preferred Sandel’s book on Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? but hope he will keep writing. One day, perhaps, the thinkers among us will conclude “free-market” economists really have no clothes and that money is not our only currency.
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