Is it wrong to pay children for getting good grades? Should there be a market for jumping the queue and cutting in line? Is it ethical to buy and sell human organs? It is quite apparent that in today’s society there are markets for many goods and services that have not historically been for sale, such as the right to pollute the atmosphere, auctioning citizenship and many other topics. Michael Sandel attempts to answer one of the biggest ethical questions of our time in What Money Can’t Buy: is there something wrong with a world in which everything is for sale?

Sandel argues that, without quite realizing it, we have drifted from having a market driven economy to being a market based society. He gives many examples in today’s society of market-based behavior that questions the role of markets in everyday life. An example of a recently new market that is quite morbid is the growing practice of companies taking out life insurance policies on their average employees (often without the employees’ knowledge), known as “janitors insurance”. When the employee dies, the company collects on the insurance as its beneficiary. This makes sense as a hedge against risk if the company stands to lose significantly if the employee passes away, as is the case with CEOs and other management. But a company profiting off the untimely death of its employees possesses a real moral dilemma and calls into question the morality of this market. What Money Can’t Buy explains that you can’t properly value a human life in monetary terms, and doing so is both degrading and raises questions of corruption.

On the other side of the argument are those that believe free markets are beneficial to all involved. This is the typical view of economists that believe that free markets will theoretically benefit all that are involved, as those involved would not be making the transactions if doing so would not make them better off than before. A trade in this type of market is mutually beneficial to all parties (if it is in fact voluntary). I do believe that certain nontraditional markets are actually beneficial to society, such as paying people to donate blood, controlling pollution with permits and licensing the hunt of endangered rhinos (it sounds destructive but Sandel explains how this tactic has actually been used to protect the endangered species). Markets are a valuable tool used to organize productive activity, but we must be careful not to introduce market ideology into spaces of life whose value may be undermined by a market.

Reading What Money Can’t Buy was a real eye-opener for me and made me realize how far our society has swayed from a market driven economy to a market based society. When does the benefit of a free market system overcome the possible moral hazards and ethical considerations involved? What is the proper role of markets in our society and what are the moral limits of these markets? These are all key ethical questions that we must answer as a society going forward.

To read about other thought-provoking topics from books relating to international business, check out other posts in our globalEDGE book series!

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