In his new book, What Money Can’t Buy, American political philosopher and Harvard professor Michael J Sandel talks about the moral limits that have been blurred over time: Tehelka
What is the difference between a market economy and a market society?
In recent decades, we have drifted, almost without realising it, from having a market economy to becoming market societies. The difference is this: a market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organising productive activity. But a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. It is a way of life, in which money and market values dominate every aspect of life — not only material goods, but family life and personal relationships; health and education; politics and civic life. What Money Can’t Buy does not argue against a market economy; it argues that we need to keep markets in their proper place.
You speak of the shift in the political classes during 1980s-’90s where the market became the primary means for achieving public good. This resulted in the mushrooming of for-profit schools, hospitals, prisons and even wars. We are witnessing something similar in India. The government is unable to meet the demands of the people. So despite collecting taxes it is turning to the private sector. Why does this happen?
Yes, since the 1980s and ’90s, we have seen the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals and prisons. Increasingly, we even outsource war to private companies. In some cases, the private sector can provide public services more efficiently than government bureaucracies. So we should not reflexively reject any and all attempts to deliver public services through the use of market mechanisms. But in societies with deep inequalities, it is important to ensure that the poor are not deprived of access to essential public services. The profit motive can be a spur to efficiency, but it can also lead to social and economic exclusion. The more things money can buy, the more affluence — or the lack of it — matters. Under conditions of deep and persistent inequality, putting a price on everything, including essential human needs, sharpens the sting of inequality, and makes it harder to be poor.