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Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

My latest Subway book (a fun, not-too-heavy book I read on the bus and subway and over meals, as opposed to my academic research) was Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy.

Sandel is that rarest of birds, a philosopher who actually can double as a public intellectual without really misrepresenting what he says. He doesn’t dumb down, although sometimes the details aren’t there as much as they would be in an academic setting because of time constraints. But when I see him on talk shows and the like, he seems to make good sense. He’s also not a bad introduction to moral and political philosophy, and I’ve used his Justice Harvard lecture series as a good way to introduce friends and family to the topics I teach in my class. What Money Can’t Buy is actually the second book I’ve read by him. The other is the companion book to that lecture series, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?.

I have a bit of a soft-spot for Michael Sandel. He does more work, and does it better, at making philosophy accessible to non-philosophers than most of us in the biz. I also use his Justice book as the closest thing we have to a textbook, paired with a lot of articles and scanned readings distributed electronically. And as always this book does a good job of using examples from the news to illustrate philosophical points. But having spent so much time working with Justice and having read some of his academic work, it felt a bit… repetitive, I guess. Philosophically, it didn’t add much beyond Justice‘s Ch. 4, and where the former book took examples more slowly and really connects them with specific points, this book seemed to more rapid-fire.

What Money Can’t Buy is about the whole idea that there’s no problem with using market forces to distribute just about anything. There’s a strain of thought you see in the social sciences that, so long as the market is truly free and there’s no coercion, as long as people decide whether to by or sell, then there’s nothing wrong. And Sandel agrees that the market is quite effective at what it does, but he also asks whether there’s a limit to how much space it should be given – whether some things simply shouldn’t be purchasable and saleable. To take one example, he discusses a Shakespeare in the Park play put on here in NYC a few years ago. The plays are free, but you need a ticket to get in which you can only pick up in person the afternoon before he play. This particular play had Pacino so there was a high public demand for tickets, and some groups actually advertised that for a price of several $100s per ticket they’d stand in line for you. It’s not unlike ticket scalping in a lot of ways, except this time the ticket-scalping undercut the main purpose of the play. Shakespeare in the Park ins a nonprofit set up to make high culture available to people without a lot of money. It’s not like with a sports event, where the main point of tickets is to make money for the team’s owners and athletes. With the Shakespeare play, the argument goes, when you sell the tickets you beak the whole purpose of the event.

Sandel talks about whether those people concern d in cases like this are on to something, whether selling tickets to events for the whole community is somehow corrupting. (According to the free market advocates, there’s nothing wrong here; charging a price means the people who most want to go to the play end up doing it, which leads to a better outcome overall.) And if you just want an examination of ways this market-driven approach has found its way into a wide variety of situations, yo’d probably find the book interesting. Or if you want a discussion of whether come practices like paid surrogacy, advertising everywhere (in school, on cop cars, even in space) are morally problematic, this book does a good job of that at a fair price: $10 for Kindle, $11 for paperback, or $19 for hardback on Amazon right now.

Personally, I found it a little repetitive and not particularly satisfying, but that’s because I was looking for something more theoretical. I wanted a philosophically grounded discussion of why these troubling situations Sandel describes are actually troubling. What’s the argument that when you slap a price on everything, that somehow corrupts it or devalues it? But then, social science and economics bores me to tears on the best days (don’t tell my roommate, the econ Ph.D. candidate) and I did finish it all the way to the end in spite of that. So perhaps that’s a bit of high praise for it. I do think it would be interesting if you approach it the right way. It’s certainy looking at an important enough question.

So bottom line? I actually would recommend it to someone interested in whether the world is too commercial, who wanted to think about specific practices and likes reading about the absurdities of culture. If you like reading those old zany laws that are still on the books, it’s probably worth reading for the story factor alone. It wasn’t for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s not for everybody.

Also, go watch the Justice Harvard videos. They’re free, fascinating, and give a good taste for what I do every day.


On a completely different note, the Tree + Flower award voting is now open.

1. Vote through the surveys linked from this Community_GFIC post.
2. Read any and/or all of the nominated stories here. Even if you don’t vote for the awards, fanfic readers always love comments. You will make their day by leaving them a review, on top of voting.
3. Find my round-up of my own nominations here. At the risk of wheedling… see above about fanfic authors and comments.

Votes are accepted now through September 15. Have at it!


And on a completely other other note, am I boring people when I go on about House? Because I can stop. I think. I’ll try if I’m really the only one interested in it. But if you’re at all interested in this show, this video completely cracked me up. Warnings for, well, everything that makes House House.



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