Poring through Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s new book, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets,” I found myself over and over again turning pages and saying, “I had no idea.”
I had no idea that in the year 2000, as Sandel notes, “a Russian rocket emblazoned with a giant Pizza Hut logo carried advertising into outer space,” or that in 2001, the British novelist Fay Weldon wrote a book commissioned by the jewelry company Bulgari and that, in exchange for payment, “the author agreed to mention Bulgari jewelry in the novel at least a dozen times.”
I knew that stadiums are now named for corporations, but had no idea that now “even sliding into home is a corporate-sponsored event,” writes Sandel. “New York Life Insurance Company has a deal with 10 Major League Baseball teams that triggers a promotional plug every time a player slides safely into base. When the umpire calls the runner safe at home plate, a corporate logo appears on the television screen, and the play-by-play announcer must say, ‘Safe at home. Safe and secure. New York Life.”’
And while I knew that retired baseball players sell their autographs for $15 a pop, I had no idea that Pete Rose, who was banished from baseball for life for betting, has a website that, Sandel writes, “sells memorabilia related to his banishment. For $299, plus shipping and handling, you can buy a baseball autographed by Rose and inscribed with an apology: ‘I’m sorry I bet on baseball.’”
I had no idea that in 2001 an elementary school in New Jersey became America’s first public school “to sell naming rights to a corporate sponsor,” Sandel writes. By 2011, seven states had approved advertising on the sides of school buses.”
Seen in isolation, these commercial encroachments seem innocuous enough. But Sandel sees them as signs of a bad trend: “Over the last three decades,” he states, “we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. But a ‘market society’ is a place where everything is up for sale. It is a way of life where market values govern every sphere of life.”
Why worry about this trend? Because, Sandel argues, market values are crowding out civic practices. When public schools are plastered with commercial advertising, they teach students to be consumers rather than citizens. When we outsource war to private military contractors, and when we have separate, shorter lines for airport security for those who can afford them, the result is that the affluent and those of modest means live increasingly separate lives, and the class-mixing institutions and public spaces that forge a sense of common experience and shared citizenship get eroded.
This reach of markets into every aspect of life was partly a result of the end of the Cold War, he argues, when America’s victory was interpreted as a victory for unfettered markets, thus propelling the notion that markets are the primary instruments for achieving the public good. It was also the result of Americans wanting more public services than they were willing to pay taxes for.
Throughout our society, we are losing the places and institutions that used to bring people together from different walks of life. Sandel calls this the “skyboxification of American life,” and it is troubling. Unless the rich and poor encounter one another in everyday life, it is hard to think of ourselves as engaged in a common project.
“The great missing debate in contemporary politics,” Sandel writes, “is about the role and reach of markets.” We should be asking where markets serve the public good, and where they don’t belong, he argues. And we should be asking how to rebuild class-mixing institutions.
“Democracy does not require perfect equality,” he concludes, “but it does require that citizens share in a common life. … For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”•
• Friedman is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to [email protected].