June/July/Aug 2012

The Cash of Civilizations

A philosopher sizes up the brave new excesses of the market age

Andrew Ross

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IT WASN’T SO LONG AGO that commentators on all sides were proclaiming the death of neoliberalism. How could the free-market credo survive the pounding it took in the wake of the 2008 financial crash?

Tolerably well, it seems. Even though the calamities wrought during the financial meltdown will likely endure for decades to come, the crisis delivered only a glancing blow to the principle of the global sovereignty of markets. Indeed, by some estimates, the rapid conversion of public goods into commodities has barely missed a beat, as market values march on into every corner of our waking lives. So the philosopher Michael J. Sandel is in fairly uncontroversial territory when he argues that the neoliberal mentality has gone too far, and that we should unite around the need “to keep markets in their place.” A thinker who specializes in promoting moral virtue as the backbone of the “good life,” Sandel wants us to accept that “markets have become detached from morals.” How we go about reconnecting them, he acknowledges, is “not obvious,” but he figures that reasoned public debate might be the best way to get results.

At a time when rage against the excesses of the 1 percent has spilled over into every town square in the country, Sandel’s trust in the power of public debate might seem quaint. At times, it smacks of the oak-paneled lecture halls of Harvard, where Sandel teaches his immensely popular course on justice, and where he’s grown accustomed to arguing with the likes of Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw and Harvard president Larry Summers (before the latter was chased out of town by a faculty vote of no confidence). Neoliberal apostles such as Mankiw and Summers are regular sparring partners in the pages of his book, and Sandel does a polite but persuasive job of biffing their tireless faith in markets. There is no knockout blow, however—nor can there be, because his adversaries are more like the court poets of our day, singing in the key of the royalists on top. Their morals, if they have any, are spun on the same loom as the emperor’s new clothes.

It’s too bad that the actual beneficiaries of market evangelism barely get mentioned in What Money Can’t Buy. Putting a face on the profiteers is a handy way of reminding readers that the people cheering on neoliberalism’s steady advance really did want to become as rich as Croesus. But Sandel does not dwell on the intentionality behind the massive wealth redistribution of the last thirty years. Indeed, his account is faintly reminiscent of the quip that the British Empire was acquired in a “fit of absence of mind.” “It is almost as if it came upon us,” he muses of the market-addled status quo; “without quite realizing it,” he observes later, “we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.” All of us, in other words, are somehow to blame for having been asleep at the wheel. Why? Because “during the era of market triumphalism” we did not have the debate about moral values that Sandel believes will “make for a healthier public life.” This is not fair to the many voices raised against neoliberalism in the decades since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gave it free rein. Nor does the broad indictment of “our” deliberative failings tell us anything about the powerful entities that have been conjured up to circumvent public debate, like the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes bills for its hired guns to push through state legislatures across the country.

To be fair to the genre of argument he’s adopted, Sandel is a moral philosopher, not a muckraker or a historian of political economy. So he asks us to take the world as we find it, and to reason together over what it ought to be. In his view, a market economy is not at all a bad thing; it can be “a valuable and effective tool . . . for organizing productive activity.” But the market is profane and amoral at root, and so it does not belong in the more sacred areas of society where it has lately trespassed. Among these are schools, hospitals, prisons, armies, baseball, law enforcement, the legislature, motherhood, and the biosphere. Sandel’s examples of this overreach are sobering, even to those inured to evidence of how far some people will go to make a fast buck. Most sordid is his chapter on the “longevity and mortality-related marketplace”—a euphemism for actuarial speculation on when someone will die. This racket originated in buying and selling insurance policies belonging to victims of terminal diseases and has now expanded to the elderly in general. In recent years, Wall Street firms have been—you guessed it—securitizing the outcome of these bets by selling “death bonds” to people who have no insurable interest in the lives of the people being bet upon. Other anecdotes focus on more petty symptoms, but they convey just how far the market mentality has gone. One practice, already quite widespread, is forehead advertising. These tattoos are usually temporary, but one Utah woman agreed to host a permanent one, for a casino, on her forehead in exchange for ten thousand dollars to fund her son’s education. A couple expecting a baby boy put their son’s name up for bid on eBay and Yahoo for five hundred thousand dollars. Strapped for funds, municipalities are selling naming rights to every square foot of city-owned property—subway stations, parks, jails, police cars, and schools. Last year, a Colorado school was permitted to sell advertising rights on report cards.

Sandel’s most consistent argument is that markets alter the goods they trade in. Far from simply serving as the most effective way of maximizing utility and delivering goods to those who need and want them, “markets leave their mark”—not unlike these forehead tattoos. Body ads don’t just communicate the sponsor’s message, Sandel writes; they “demean the people paid to wear them.” Likewise, product placement in novels “corrupts the relationship of author and reader,” and human blood is debased when it is sold rather than donated. In some instances, Sandel even takes issue with the utility maximizers, approvingly citing, for instance, Richard Titmuss’s celebrated 1970 study (The Gift Relationship) that showed the British system of donating blood was more efficient than the American for-profit version, which typically only redistributes the blood of the poor to the wealthy. For the most part, however, Sandel sticks to moral ground, and he is most roused when defending the cause of civic virtue against economists who treat altruism (always a bit of an enigma for the self-optimizers) as a scarce resource that needs to be carefully conserved. “Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise.”

Given his passion for fellow feeling, it is odd that Sandel shows no interest in alternative economic arrangements, especially those in the tradition of cooperative or mutual aid. Worker cooperatives, barter networks (notably widespread in Argentina and Greece), and Really Really Free Markets (community-based efforts to share resources) are exponents of this proud lineage. Nor does What Money Can’t Buy have anything to say about the many varieties of market socialism or more centralized state economies that withdraw most social goods from the marketplace. Instead, Sandel’s world seems to be firmly divided between God and Mammon; in return for evicting the marketeers from the areas he holds sacred, he is prepared to grant them ruling powers over all the others. Readers might justifiably conclude that, since the neoliberal invasion of the disputed territories began three decades ago, all we have to do is restore the truce lines of the 1970s, before the postwar compact was broken.

But even if a return to that status quo ante were in the offing, not everyone has a rosy view of the Pax Americana of that era, or what the French call the trentes glorieuses of sustained growth and income. If civic virtue did flourish during these decades, large segments of the population were excluded from accessing it, and the primary beneficiaries (male breadwinners bringing home a “family wage”) of the compact were almost all in the industrialized countries. Readers of Sandel’s age (myself included) need to try harder to balance their sense of loss against the experience of those who have never known a more humbled form of capitalism.

Many of those coming out of the Occupy movement are calling themselves “revolutionaries” without a smidgen of irony. The evidence is that they won’t settle for a polite, public debate about the rightful place of markets. Debt is the financial device that has shackled them, and they know their futures have been harshly foreclosed by repayment schedules that stretch all the way to the grave. Breaking these bonds will be the order of the day. The same mentality underpins the wave of protest sweeping through populations in Europe, North Africa, and Latin America, where citizens have likewise been soaked with unpayable debts. Forehead advertising is bad enough, but the deeper villainy lies beneath the surface: Our political imagination is being constricted by nothing so grisly as the threat of a ruined credit score.

Andrew Ross teaches at New York University and is the author of many books including, most recently, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City (Oxford University Press, 2011).