TED: Michael Sandel: Why we shouldn’t trust markets with our civic life – Michael Sandel (2013)


December 14, 2013 in Video

Here’s a question we need to rethink together: What should be the role of money and markets in our societies?

Today, there are very few things that money can’t buy. If you’re sentenced to a jail term in Santa Barbara, California, you should know that if you don’t like the standard accommodations, you can buy a prison cell upgrade. It’s true. For how much, do you think? What would you guess? Five hundred dollars? It’s not the Ritz-Carlton. It’s a jail! Eighty-two dollars a night. Eighty-two dollars a night. If you go to an amusement park and don’t want to stand in the long lines for the popular rides, there is now a solution. In many theme parks, you can pay extra to jump to the head of the line. They call them Fast Track or VIP tickets.

And this isn’t only happening in amusement parks. In Washington, D.C., long lines, queues sometimes form for important Congressional hearings. Now some people don’t like to wait in long queues, maybe overnight, even in the rain. So now, for lobbyists and others who are very keen to attend these hearings but don’t like to wait, there are companies, line-standing companies, and you can go to them. You can pay them a certain amount of money, they hire homeless people and others who need a job to stand waiting in the line for as long as it takes, and the lobbyist, just before the hearing begins, can take his or her place at the head of the line and a seat in the front of the room. Paid line standing.

It’s happening, the recourse to market mechanisms and market thinking and market solutions, in bigger arenas. Take the way we fight our wars. Did you know that, in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were more private military contractors on the ground than there were U.S. military troops? Now this isn’t because we had a public debate about whether we wanted to outsource war to private companies, but this is what has happened.

Over the past three decades, we have lived through a quiet revolution. We’ve drifted almost without realizing 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 organizing productive activity, but a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. It’s a way of life, in which market thinking and market values begin to dominate every aspect of life: personal relations, family life, health, education, politics, law, civic life.

Now, why worry? Why worry about our becoming market societies? For two reasons, I think. One of them has to do with inequality. The more things money can buy, the more affluence, or the lack of it, matters. If the only thing that money determined was access to yachts or fancy vacations or BMWs, then inequality wouldn’t matter very much. But when money comes increasingly to govern access to the essentials of the good life — decent health care, access to the best education, political voice and influence in campaigns — when money comes to govern all of those things, inequality matters a great deal. And so the marketization of everything sharpens the sting of inequality and its social and civic consequence. That’s one reason to worry.

There’s a second reason apart from the worry about inequality, and it’s this: with some social goods and practices, when market thinking and market values enter, they may change the meaning of those practices and crowd out attitudes and norms worth caring about.

I’d like to take an example of a controversial use of a market mechanism, a cash incentive, and see what you think about it. Many schools struggle with the challenge of motivating kids, especially kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, to study hard, to do well in school, to apply themselves. Some economists have proposed a market solution: Offer cash incentives to kids for getting good grades or high test scores or for reading books. They’ve tried this, actually. They’ve done some experiments in some major American cities. In New York, in Chicago, in Washington, D.C., they’ve tried this, offering 50 dollars for an A, 35 dollars for a B. In Dallas, Texas, they have a program that offers eight-year-olds two dollars for each book they read.

So let’s see what — Some people are in favor, some people are opposed to this cash incentive to motivate achievement. Let’s see what people here think about it. Imagine that you are the head of a major school system, and someone comes to you with this proposal. And let’s say it’s a foundation. They will provide the funds. You don’t have to take it out of your budget. How many would be in favor and how many would be opposed to giving it a try? Let’s see by a show of hands.

First, how many think it might at least be worth a try to see if it would work? Raise your hand.

And how many would be opposed? How many would —

So the majority here are opposed, but a sizable minority are in favor. Let’s have a discussion. Let’s start with those of you who object, who would rule it out even before trying. What would be your reason? Who will get our discussion started? Yes?

Heike Moses: Hello everyone, I’m Heike, and I think it just kills the intrinsic motivation, so in the respect that children, if they would like to read, you just take this incentive away in just paying them, so it just changes behavior. Michael Sandel: Takes the intrinsic incentive away.

What is, or should be, the intrinsic motivation?

HM: Well, the intrinsic motivation should be to learn.

MS: To learn. HM: To get to know the world. And then, if you stop paying them, what happens then? Then they stop reading?

MS: Now, let’s see if there’s someone who favors, who thinks it’s worth trying this.

Elizabeth Loftus: I’m Elizabeth Loftus, and you said worth a try, so why not try it and do the experiment and measure things? MS: And measure. And what would you measure? You’d measure how many — EL: How many books they read and how many books they continued to read after you stopped paying them.

MS: Oh, after you stopped paying. All right, what about that?

HM: To be frank, I just think this is, not to offend anyone, a very American way.

(Laughter) (Applause)

MS: All right. What’s emerged from this discussion is the following question: Will the cash incentive drive out or corrupt or crowd out the higher motivation, the intrinsic lesson that we hope to convey, which is to learn to love to learn and to read for their own sakes? And people disagree about what the effect will be, but that seems to be the question, that somehow a market mechanism or a cash incentive teaches the wrong lesson, and if it does, what will become of these children later?

I should tell you what’s happened with these experiments. The cash for good grades has had very mixed results, for the most part has not resulted in higher grades. The two dollars for each book did lead those kids to read more books. It also led them to read shorter books.


But the real question is, what will become of these kids later? Will they have learned that reading is a chore, a form of piecework to be done for pay, that’s the worry, or may it lead them to read maybe for the wrong reason initially but then lead them to fall in love with reading for its own sake?

Now, what this, even this brief debate, brings out is something that many economists overlook. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they exchange. Market exchange, they assume, doesn’t change the meaning or value of the goods being exchanged. This may be true enough if we’re talking about material goods. If you sell me a flat screen television or give me one as a gift, it will be the same good. It will work the same either way. But the same may not be true if we’re talking about nonmaterial goods and social practices such as teaching and learning or engaging together in civic life. In those domains, bringing market mechanisms and cash incentives may undermine or crowd out nonmarket values and attitudes worth caring about. Once we see that markets and commerce, when extended beyond the material domain, can change the character of the goods themselves, can change the meaning of the social practices, as in the example of teaching and learning, we have to ask where markets belong and where they don’t, where they may actually undermine values and attitudes worth caring about. But to have this debate, we have to do something we’re not very good at, and that is to reason together in public about the value and the meaning of the social practices we prize, from our bodies to family life to personal relations to health to teaching and learning to civic life.

Now these are controversial questions, and so we tend to shrink from them. In fact, during the past three decades, when market reasoning and market thinking have gathered force and gained prestige, our public discourse during this time has become hollowed out, empty of larger moral meaning. For fear of disagreement, we shrink from these questions. But once we see that markets change the character of goods, we have to debate among ourselves these bigger questions about how to value goods.

One of the most corrosive effects of putting a price on everything is on commonality, the sense that we are all in it together. Against the background of rising inequality, marketizing every aspect of life leads to a condition where those who are affluent and those who are of modest means increasingly live separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools.

This isn’t good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live, even for those of us who can afford to buy our way to the head of the line. Here’s why. Democracy does not require perfect equality, but what it does require is that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different social backgrounds and different walks of life encounter one another, bump up against one another in the ordinary course of life, because this is what teaches us to negotiate and to abide our differences. And this is how we come to care for the common good.

And so, in the end, the question of markets is not mainly an economic question. It’s really a question of how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Thank you very much.


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About the author 

Daniel Latto

Daniel Latto is the owner and Director of The Daniel Latto Group, a Full Service Digital Marketing Agency.

Daniel advises businesses on marketing on Social Media using both Paid and Organic content. His top rated iTunes Podcast; 'The Wealth Creation Show' has hundreds of thousands of listeners around the world.

Daniel originally became Financially Free through property, with a Multi Million Pound Property porftolfio in Leeds.

He now lives in Spain on the shores of the Mediterranean.

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