What money Can't buy by Michael J Sandel - Essay Prowess

What money Can’t buy by Michael J Sandel


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What money Can’t buy- Michael J Sandel


Michael Sandel, a highly regarded contributor to political philosophy provides a thought provoking title for his latest book ‘What money Can’t buy’ which serves to move away from the commonly accepted notion that money can by anything. In the contemporary world economy, it is a common fact that for the right price one can purchase anything from human internal organs, a new face and identity and even an endangered species as a hunting trophy (Sandel, 64).

Majority of the world’s population can only live on what they can afford such that this book’s title tends to cause some degree of disquiet prior to getting to the subject matter of this publication. As such, to most individuals the title relates to a question of economic morality. Market alienability is the case where something is not for sale or in economic terms, cannot be offered for trade in a market. This is indeed a moral aspect of trade within Marxist economic ideals (Sandel, 6). The 20th Century saw an increased interest in the examination and development in the ethics on specific forms of trade such as in the trade of game trophies from endangered animal species such as elephant tusks, prostitution and human internal body organs. Sandel dedicates much of his energy towards provoking the general reader’s mind with regard to such aspects. His aim is not to merely keep the reader informed on this odd trend but to philosophically offer explanations as to why we have to seek to alter this trend. This book review seeks to address the thesis Sandel projects in his book ‘What money Can’t buy’, explain my personal opinion on the subject matter and assess his success in exploring the thesis statement.

Main ideas

The main ideas in this book are aimed at inviting suspicions relating to the aspects of trade such that transactions naturally occurring in the market place made between consenting individuals seem to lack universal approval. Primary focus is on the exchange of goods and services in the market place more so with regard to the contentious aspect of price. As such, Sandel’s major worry with this aspect is that it has a very high tendency of abetting corruption.

There are some key goods and services which tend to instantiate moral values and are regulated by norms which are essence incompatible with norms as well as values commonly associated with markets. Some of these goods and services include education, sex, health and nature. In situations where market forces interfere with the said goods and services and the general standards of living, ethical values and socially accepted norms are crowded out. These goods tend to become inappropriate as their value becomes corrupted (Besley, 480). The core matter in this book is based on Aristotelian ideal such that everything with a given value has a specific telos or aim such that deviations from such an aim lead to a corruption in their nature.

Without a doubt, many goods and services are indeed the appropriate subject matter of commodity markets and as such are hardly corruptible by price. However, there are individuals and schools of thought who strongly resist the core essence of markets but a majority of the general population rarely voice concerns on the trading of goods such as laptops, smart phones, toasters and the like. This implies that readers have to clearly differentiate what the book portends to discuss and also concretely understand what the author feels so uneasy about. As such, Sandel provides that it is necessary for the reader to assess value of each and every good and service in the market so as to assess the moral subject for the need for such (Sandel, p. 10). This will ideally serve to help readers further understand on norms governing their trade such that a reader will be able to decide whether if the morals are corrupted the good will be commoditized.

According to Sandel, market triumphalism (which refers to the extent with which markets dictate people’s lives) has been as a result of societal values which have sought to define what is good living. One of the reasons as to why this failure has been reoccurring in the last few decades has been  attributed to an attempt to cause discontent among individuals or groups of individuals with moral and religious inclinations which vary widely. The liberal principle has also been highlighted as a reason for market triumphalism as it requires the administration of a state to be neutral on such values. Conversely, market norms and contemporary reasoning have poured in to the resultant vacuum. This is clearly stated in the book ‘Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between admirable preferences and base ones. Each party to a deal decides for himself or herself what value to place on the thing being exchanged’ (Sandel, 14 ).

Many examples in the book address instances where the allocation of goods is dictated by the price of a good, implying that there may be circumstances where a specific good may fall in the wrong hands. For instance, the book includes Bruce Springsteen who approved selling show tickets at low prices in 2009 so as to reach a wider audience (Sandel, 48). This translated into the rock star loosing revenues of up to 4 million dollars. Another example provided is relevant with the professional sports industry where commercialization has made this industry a boom for corporate sponsorship essentially locking out true sporting fans.

An alternative provided to such contemporary markets goes way back to the Soviet era where prices were kept low as essential goods were rationed and offered to those who could withstand the stresses and strains associated with waiting in line. However, Sandel, ‘cast doubt on the economist claim that markets are always better than queues at getting goods to those who value them most highly. In some cases, the willingness to stand in line … may be a better indicator of who really wants to attend than the willingness to pay.’(32). For example, in most national health care systems, employ waiting times in an effort to ration the delivery of essential health care services to the many citizens in the need for these life sustaining services. As such those with the economic means to pursue alternative sources of health care are in a position to acquire such services at the instance the need arises. The rationing of such services is ideally to economize on cost incurred by governments such that resources are meant for the ‘less privileged’ in society (Besley, 482). The downside to this queuing strategy is that people suffer much agony or worse, lose their lives waiting to be served.

Market achievements: An economic perspective

Features of allocative efficiency with respect to externalities and public goods provides that the application of markets tends to exhibit sever limitations. The government’s obligations, such as the collection of taxes, regulation and provision of public goods ideally seems to only supplement what the markets fail to address.

Use of imperfect market information such as adverse selection and moral dangers in known market economic models further portends to shadow whether allocative efficiency is sustainable in contemporary markets (Besley, 480). As such some economists provide that intelligently structured centralized solutions could result in better societal outcomes compared to what the markets have achieved. Markets tend to instigate constraints on optimization of goods and services delivery as they create opportunities for arbitrage which overshadow the positive effects accruing from mechanisms instituted to optimize markets.

Sandel’s book provides that the common consumer tends to miss out on the important aspects even when they look at market issues through a lens. As such, this argument introduces externalities such as preferences, motivation and societal norms in a manner that is no appropriately priced relative to market transactions (Besley, 483). It is important to point out that a market economy essentially does not offer a guarantee that outcomes will be universally equitable. These markets imperfections arise as a result of core inefficiencies in the distribution of capital and human resources. As such, skills deficiencies or entrepreneurial talents may result in inequalities even in instances where there are minimal market imperfections.


Most of the arguments provided in Sandel’s book discuss the negative aspects of markets stemming from aspects of commercial gain. It is important to note that there are myriads of private organizations which proactively endeavor to limit commercial incentives such that they operate on a non profit maxim (Baggini). These non profit organizations deem it personal rent seeking initiative by managers in such organization as being overly costly such that this offers a innate means for adherence to the aspect of quality.

As much as the book promotes the idea for more obligations to be accorded to non profit organizations with regard to health care provision and education as they play a traditional and significant role in society (Baggini). However, it is important to accept the fact that non profit organizations also function in a market, therefore, if there are no entry restrictions to such a market place then non-profit organizations have to withstand competition from profit making entities.


From reading this book, one gets the impression that Sandel is indeed a deceptively articulate writer. He has the ability to convert intricate philosophical ideals into straightforward ideas which seem obvious to his readers. However, this book fails to clearly point out why readers should have a general feeling of unease why situations like having sponsor logos on player’s shirts should bring such feeling yet it has been there for a long time now. As such, his arguments should be appropriately balanced considering he mentions how some aspects of life have become independent of market forces. However, it is important to note that this book has served his audience well in raising the alarm at an appropriate time, to engage the public in an involving debate on what values national politics should enhance and protect and which ones to be discriminated upon.

Works cited

Baggini, Julian. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J Sandel – review. The Guardian. 2013. Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/25/money-cant-buy-sandel-review>

Besley, Timothy. “What’s the Good of the Market? An Essay on Michael Sandel’s “What Money Can’t Buy”.” The Journal of Economic Literature 51.2 (2013): 478-95. Print

Sandel, Michael J. “What Isn’t for Sale?.” The Atlantic 309.3 (2012): 62-66. Print

Sandel, Michael J. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. London: Penguin, 2012. Print