Regular readers will be aware of my disdain for twitter. In the Sunday Times last week it made me chuckle to read it described as being "a medium of communication designed for the vapid, the deranged and the self-obsessed." Anyway, I'm grateful to the person who tweeted a reference to a book by Michael Sandel published in 2012 and entitled 'What Money Can't Buy :The Moral Limits of Markets.'
Hang on I thought. That sounds like a very pertinent issue to explore, especially given the omnishambles that Chris Grayling intends to impose upon the Probation Service. His plan is all about creating a 'market' for rehabilitation services to all-but completely replace the former public service. So far much of the debate has centred around whether it will work or not. What about whether it's right or not? The morality of it.
Well here we have a much-respected academic saying very clearly that there is indeed a moral aspect to all this. These selected quotes from a comprehensive book review by John Lanchester of the Guardian gives a flavour of the argument:-
"Over the past three decades," Sandel writes, "markets – and market values – have come to govern out lives as never before." Sandel is no socialist and isn't against markets per se. He is forthright about the positive impact markets can have in their correct sphere. "No other mechanism for organising the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful for generating affluence and prosperity." His focus, perhaps unexpectedly, isn't on the 2008 crash and the great recession that followed. Instead, Sandel is interested in what he sees as a deeper and more consequential loss of our collective moral compass. "The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong."
Sandel is methodical about assembling evidence to refute the idea that markets are amoral and have no moral impact. Paying people to queue, for example: Sandel studies this practice in areas such as US congressional hearings and free outdoor theatre performances. In both cases, companies have come into being to allow the well-off to hire a homeless person to go and hold a place in the queue until the rich person turns up just in time for the main event. This is an example of something which is supposed to be a communal good being marketised and turned into cash. This has two consequences that often recur and are stressed by Sandel: one is that the process is unfair, and the other is that it is corrupting or degrading to the thing being marketised.