In a market economy, private individuals and groups own assets, control businesses, and make economic decisions. Though the government can regulate certain parts of these private markets, it does not control them.
Most of the wealthiest countries in the world have a market economy with some government oversight. As long as they comply with regulations, pay their share of taxes, and do not directly oppose the government, businesses and individuals can operate freely and earn money as they see fit.
A market economy is different from a market society. In a market society, every aspect of people’s lives has a monetary value.
A simple example of this phenomenon would be the economic value placed on the data someone generates when searching for a business on the internet. Companies collect the information on this activity and sell it to marketers who send targeted ads back to the searcher.
In a market society, it is sometimes challenging to decide what money can’t buy and what it can. The monetization of some aspects of life can raise questions about moral limits. For example, military contractors, for-profit prisons, and privatized healthcare cause concerns that vital decisions get based on profit values rather than what is good for society.
Today, political philosophy tries to address fundamental questions related to the relationship between civic goods and markets.
Here is a look at what money can’t buy and the moral limits of markets in today’s modern market-driven age.
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How To Decide What Money Can’t Buy
One of the challenges of this philosophy is that market values are open to interpretation, and leading political thinkers and philosophers have differing opinions on the subject. However, one school of thought, led by a Harvard professor, is widely accepted by leading economic and political science thinkers.
Michael Sandel, today’s most popular political philosopher and one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, argues that people should analyze the ways that market thinking impacts modern society and people’s everyday lives. Policies, business decisions, and development plans should focus on moral and civic goods rather than only on profits and economic potential.
While Michael Sandel argues that a democratic society needs some level of economic and social freedom, the pursuit of profits, technological development, and economic success should not create an ethical vacuum where the good of individuals and society no longer matters. Though he is not against free markets, Sandel argues that civil society needs to prevent market values from entering spheres where they do not belong.
With these ideas in mind, the list of things that money can’t buy includes everything that brings inherent value to human life. This type of human value isn’t compatible with a market society because it can’t be bought or sold. The market activity often challenges these values.
Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, which is an international bestseller, details many of the things that fall into the nonmarket category. He explains why these things that money can’t buy are important to civil society and how market thinking challenges them.
Here is a closer look at 12 things that money can’t buy.
Different Things That Money Can’t Buy
In many countries, it is possible to buy citizenship indirectly. Wealthy individuals can invest in a country, and, after leaving their capital in place for a certain amount of time, gain citizenship.
However, critics of this practice, including Michael Sandel, argue that citizenship through investment is not true citizenship. True citizenship involves a feeling of belonging between people in a country and a national identity that comes from growing up in a place or going through a lengthy naturalization process. This definition of citizenship is different from gaining a passport from another country.
The idea of selling citizenship creates a two-tiered system. On one hand, you have people who truly identify as citizens of a country, and on the other, you have those who can purchase citizenship but do not feel such a connection.
Someone can identify as a citizen because they have strong feelings for a country after visiting and then obtaining legal citizenship through investment. Sandel would likely argue that these people would fit into the first tier because they feel an affinity for the country and its people. This affinity is something that money can’t buy.
People can purchase health insurance, buy advanced treatments or medicines, or take other steps to purchase things that protect themselves from disease, injury, or illness. However, there are limits to modern medicine.
Even the wealthiest people may succumb to incurable diseases. Also, accidents and traumatic injuries can befall anyone, including people who stay in their homes and never venture outside.
Those who attempt to purchase cutting-edge cures may not get the result they want. For example, risky new drugs may have side effects, and new treatments may not work as expected.
Though some people can purchase medicines or therapy services that delay aging, the human body will continue to age, and health complications due to this aging will cause death to everyone eventually.
Finally, issues like transmissible diseases affect everyone. For-profit healthcare leaves many without resources for prevention and treatment. This exposes everyone to greater health risks, even those who purchase healthcare services.
In this sense, health is a community-level issue that cannot be bought or individualized.
In a market society, many people might have the impression that it is possible to buy romantic relationships, friendships, business partnerships, and other types of relationships. While joining clubs, buying memberships on exclusive dating apps, or attracting romantic partners by spending lots of money are widely accepted as normal in a market society, they may not result in true relationships.
Even dating apps that promise to help you meet just the right person cannot take every factor into account. Relationships require trust and mutual understanding that takes time and face-to-face interactions to build.
Also, relationships are more nuanced. They require mutual benefits.
However, these benefits are unique to each person, and they may change over time. Because relationships are dynamic in this way, it is impossible to commodify them.
In his book, Michael Sandel worries about the effects of the cost of education. He focuses on elite universities, which require money or connections to enter. People who attend these universities have more opportunities in their professional lives than those who do not attend a school or go to less prestigious institutions.
Sandel argues that true education does not only benefit the student. It teaches them the necessary skills to contribute to society. Without the necessary training, society misses out on potential contributions that these people would have made with their learned knowledge.
For an individual hoping to gain a personal advantage, it is possible to buy an education. However, from the wider viewpoint of society, it is impossible to buy a true education. Students who buy their way into colleges, for example, may only use their knowledge for personal gain, not for the good of society.
Educational access is a society-level issue, and it cannot be bought or sold if society wants to enjoy the benefits provided by educated individuals.
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5. Religious Beliefs
Markets and religion are tied together on some level. Places of worship need money to operate, which they get from various business activities or contributions from worshippers. Some businesses focus specifically on creating products or offering services for believers in a particular faith.
While some religious markets fill specific needs for practitioners, others focus solely on profits. This issue can be problematic on some levels because it makes some believers think that they have to spend money to follow their chosen faith. Also, some businesses treat religious rituals as chances to increase profits through sales or payments for access to ceremonies.
However, it is impossible to commodify the actual beliefs, moral codes, and senses like hope, peace, and happiness that people might get from their religious practices and belief systems. So while making religion-related purchases can make people appear more religious to others, it does nothing to increase the inward value of religion for that person.
Michael Sandel’s argument against market society focuses on the true meaning of justice. He uses interesting examples like for-profit prisons to show how the justice system can move away from its intended purpose.
The goal of justice is to keep members of society safe, dissuade people from criminal activity, punish those who break the law, and ensure society remains orderly.
The legal and penal systems do not always serve these goals. Even if the law is applied evenly, those with access to better lawyers may be able to avoid the same level of punishment as those who have to rely on public defenders.
Secondly, for-profit prisons may have other motives besides punishing and rehabilitating criminals. They may not offer necessary services, engage in outsourcing inmates, or have inhumane conditions that make rehabilitation impossible.
Sandel and other public philosophy thinkers would likely argue that these institutions do not represent true justice because their primary goal is to make profits, not improve society. True justice benefits society and does not pursue profits, so it needs to be independent of market thinking.
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Community provides a sense of support, belonging, identity, and purpose for its members. These benefits come from interacting with other members of the community, and it grows over time. Though the interactions and relationships may take place in businesses, the growth of the sense of community happens independently from any market activities.
In some cases, people or businesses may attempt to commodify the sense of community. They may ask people who want to belong to a specific group to buy tickets or purchase memberships. Others may seek to build a community around a business or for-profit idea.
In some cases, members of affluent society may only accept people of similar economic status into their community.
In these for-profit instances, it is impossible to create an organic sense of support, belonging, and purpose. Some community members are only there for personal gain or to get specific advantages. In these cases, the organic benefits are impossible to realize because of the presence of market values.
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Sandel’s book also addresses the idea of markets versus queues, which illustrates the larger idea of fairness in society. The idea is that waiting in line for some essential goods or services is better than purchasing them through a market economy system because it improves fairness for everyone. In other words, access would be based on everyone waiting their turn rather than purely material calculus that occurs when people simply purchase services.
Sandel explains that market exchanges are effective in many cases, but they can compromise fairness when it comes to some goods and services that are necessary for people’s everyday lives. The lack of fairness comes from the idea that markets allocate goods based on who has the money for them rather than who needs them. On the other hand, queues allocate goods based on fairness and everyone waiting for their opportunity.
Fairness goes hand-in-hand with civic virtue. The goal should be to ensure that everyone who needs limited services can get them.
The most common examples would be healthcare and education. In a completely fair society, everyone would wait for their opportunity, ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to access necessary services.
9. Moral Worth
The idea of moral worth comes from completing activities or tasks that benefit others or society at large. Nonmarket norms give such activities moral worth. However, in a market society, such values get replaced by market reasoning, which focuses on efficiency, individual gain, and profits.
An example of an activity that has moral worth could be someone taking steps to limit how much pollution gets released into the air. This activity might be at odds with market-based thinking if causing the pollution leads to increased profits for a company.
Since activities with moral worth and market value often have differing goals, it is impossible to buy such morals.
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10. Human Dignity
Human dignity comes from the intrinsic value that each person has due to the basic fact that they are human beings. In a market society, the way people are treated is often based on their material worth rather than their humanity.
When values get skewed in this way, some people may be unable to get the resources necessary to care for themselves, enjoy basic freedoms, or take advantage of opportunities. In other words, the market makes it more difficult (or even impossible) to lead a dignified life.
Because it has to be completely independent of market thinking, human dignity cannot be purchased.
Personal character governs how each person interacts with society and informs their choices about how they treat others and the actions they take. Aspects of a person’s character can include qualities like responsibility, truthfulness, compassion, ethics, and bravery.
These qualities get developed over time as a person interacts with the world, learns from parents or other elders in their life, and gains experience. Personal character can also be informed by religion, moral codes, and other beliefs.
Because character develops from interaction and experience, it is not something that can be commodified. However, that does not stop some people from trying to purchase good character.
In some spheres, people ascribe to the idea that it is possible to buy the moral limits of society. This means that instead of developing character or acting in ways that display good character, they make purchases or use their money to hide their lack of responsibility or make themselves seem exempt from the expectations of society.
An example of this might be a company that mistreats its workers and pays them less than a livable wage. After this mistreatment becomes public, the company may hire a PR firm to spin the story in their favor instead of taking steps to increase employees’ wages and improve conditions.
Even if such efforts are successful, they only present the illusion of responsibility and compassion. The actual development of good character traits is not purchasable.
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12. A Healthy Environment
Michael Sandel argues extensively that environmental degradation is a major challenge for the world and threatens the prosperity of future generations.
Environmental challenges tie into other things money can’t buy. For example, the depletion of resources, global warming, and other issues create problems related to fairness for future generations.
The current generation is overusing resources to gain short-term economic success. However, without sustainable management, these resources won’t be available for future generations. This raises issues related to fairness, justice, and the moral worth of economic activities.
While some people might argue that money can buy the technology to potentially reverse problems like a lack of clean water, carbon pollution, or depleted resources, there is no guarantee that these technologies will work or that people will not suffer the effects of environmental problems while they wait for these technologies.
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Kyle Kroeger, esteemed Purdue University alum and accomplished finance professional, brings a decade of invaluable experience from diverse finance roles in both small and large firms. An astute investor himself, Kyle adeptly navigates the spheres of corporate and client-side finance, always guiding with a principal investor’s sharp acumen.
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