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A Book Review of “What Money Can’t Buy”

Nyamweya is a columnist with a Kenyan print media.He is also a freelance writer with various online and offline media platforms

Background of the Author and Intended Audience

Michael J. Sandel is an American philosopher and experienced author who achieved a distinguished career for himself. As a law professor at Harvard University, Michael has honed his experience in the discipline of government. His expertise has enabled him to develop a strong understanding of the concepts of leadership and justice. Justice is especially his main area of interest, and thus it is the main course that he teaches at Harvard. The course has been made even more famous from Michael’s understanding of it, and this aspect has resulted in the University offering the course for free, both online and through television. Michael’s interest in philosophy gathered more speed during his time as Rhodes Scholar under Charles Taylor. His interest in politics and governance resides in his main area of specialization. In 1975, Michael graduated with a degree in Politics from Brandeis University.

As an experienced author for the New York Times, Michael J. Sandel developed a knack for political observation. In the book titled ‘What Money Can’t Buy,’ he intends to demonstrate to world leaders, especially those in the US, several of his observations about morality and economic application. Michael tries to show his intended audience that markets and morality are two concepts that have now become firmly interwoven. There is a need to strike a balance that will ensure that morals are preserved while still guaranteeing economic growth and expansion (Sandel, 2012, p. 4). Michael also targets elites in society. He intends to catch the attention of individuals who are aware of economic policies and their consequences for a particular society. Michael’s book is persuasive and philosophical, and aims to allow the reader to view the world from Michael’s perspective.

Summary of the Book

The world has changed in recent years, and markets’ evolution has been so significant that markets wield a greater force globally. The influence exerted by markets has been characterized by what the author terms the liberalization of the economy. Many world leaders and mostly in the United States, have proclaimed the free market as the solution to all the problems experienced by most markets. The author notes that the free market played a significant part in making markets prosper, but its limits only reached a certain point where the markets became too big (Sandel, 2012, p. 4). Presently, Michael decries that the free market has grown in enormous proportions because now most things that should not even be on sale have a monetary value. Additionally, He identifies things like justice, education, and security. Again, He speculates that we have been so willing to allow markets to control our lives to the point that we have now forgotten the basic tenets of morality that made us human in the first place.

The book is a perfect example of the moral deficit that exists in the current global society. So many people treasure money more than the appeal of being truly human. People are most ready to sell the items that should not even be sold in the first place because of the way the market has been allowed to dominate proceedings in most people’s lives. The book uses several examples to explain some of the things that the author holds dear. Part of what the book is entirely against is given in the text in the form of examples. The book highlights a few things that should never have been monetized in the first place. The items highlighted in the book are a perfect example of what the author intends to communicate to the audience. The author wants to make the audience know that things are not as balanced as they ought to have been. For instance, the author relates a couple of things that ought to make the reader understand the current global situation. Among the examples is the author’s admission that most things have currently been monetized. The author primarily uses war as an example. The war in Somalia is used as a perfect example of people now going to war for the sake of money.

In the days gone by, war was used as a symbol of pride and bravery. Most people went to war to safeguard their sovereignty as a people and generally for their dignity. The writer cites some private military contractors as an example of how the market has now been monetized. The author again, recognizes that markets could have been so much better if they were left to be by all themselves. The author appreciates the sense of a free market and also indeed suggests that the market would have been so much better if it was regulated to some extent (Sandel, 2012, p. 5). The author understands markets and their core characteristics. Part of why the author is so into markets is that most people do not understand economics’ fundamental laws. Failure to understand what markets are and what they stand for means that most people always fail to understand why some things happen in a conventional social environment. The author also uses a couple of economic models to try and prove a point to the reader.


The free market model is the first model employed by the author. The model outlines a couple of things that markets have to align with to continue enjoying free profitability. The critical thing about the model is the fact that the market is left open and unchallenged. Most governments today regulate markets and the activities therein. As stated by the author, the model recognizes that markets perform better when left to themselves (Sandel, 2012, p. 7). In as much as the prospect of a free market is enticing to most people, most of them forget that markets still fail. The author recognizes that markets can be successful or that they can still succumb to failure. The author also uses the model to express the freedom that markets have been given over people’s lives and the role they are particularly playing in causing greed and materialism. According to the book, it is clear that most individuals are taking advantage of the freedom in the market to put prices on abstract things that need not have a monetary value in the first place.

The book is also a perfect example of the supply and demand model of economics. The law of supply and demand governs the day to day operations in everyday society. Most people rely on the law to ensure that businesses are running smoothly and that social and economic growth is in a particular social setup. Supply and demand are like two sides of a coin. The law is best understood as a co-dependent relationship in which change in one variable leads to a change in the other variable. Michael understands that things are not always as straightforward, as highlighted by the law of supply and demand. Supply and demand are two of the most volatile things in economics. There are times when supply is high, and there are also times when demand is higher than the supply. The balance between supply and demand is the perfect example of what the author wishes for in the book. The author hopes for a market in which there is freedom, but there is also restriction. In using the supply and demand model, Sandel seeks to make the reader see the distinction between a useful buying and selling model, and one that is simply a monetization of day to life in society.

Excerpts from the Book

Introductory Chapter Excerpt

“We live at a time when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.” (Sandel, 2012, p. 4)

This excerpt is drawn from the introduction section of the book. The passage highlights the main point that the author seeks to make through the book. An introduction is usually the opening part of any piece of writing and its essence is highlighted when it is clear and precise. Michael’s introductory chapter is clear and precise, hence, making the grade as a high quality welcome to the book and what it aims to cover. He mentions that we live in a world where currently all things can be bought or sold (Sandel, 2012, p. 4). The author’s ideas indicate that the problem we now face is not a result of our deliberate actions. The author is a firm believer of the fact that markets should not control every part of the day to day human lives. The writer attempts to convince the readers that although the situation came to be without their knowledge, there are things that they can do to remedy it. The excerpt also showcases the author’s philosophical appeal. Throughout the first chapter of the book, it is evident that the author has mastered rhetoric and uses it exceptionally well to allow the reader to understand whatever concepts he is trying to get across.

Value is a word that is pleasing to the ear. The very nature of value is in itself amusing since it guarantees a certain surety of being. Before values were invented, one would imagine that things were measured only in abstract terms. Estimation must have been the norm of the day as most people looked for something to help them understand how life is around them. Then came different inventions and now items can be quantified in real terms. Measurement is not only used in things that are physical in nature. Today people measure all kinds of things; they measure love, hate and also beauty as personality. The tendency to attach values to everything has taken root in society and currently most people attempt to attach value to almost everything that they can see around them.

Value attachment that is non-monetary in nature is the best kind of value since it represents real human emotions. For instance, a person can love his dog so much that he cannot sell it no matter the price a prospective buyer is willing to pay. Today, money drives the perception of value that most people in society have. Via the use of money, people can understand whether something is really valuable or not. The tendency to use money has led to an obsession that has resulted in certain undeserving things receiving monetary quantification. The excerpt highlighted above showcases the author’s attitude towards the monetary valuation of most things. The author seems to suggest that the kind of valuing that is non-monetary is more human than the kind of valuation that seeks to commoditize every other part of society.

Chapter 1 Excerpt

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‘…Even where you’re not allowed to buy your way to the head of the line, you can sometimes hire someone else to queue up on your behalf. Each summer, New York City’s Public Theater puts on free outdoor Shakespeare performances in Central Park…’ (Sandel, 2012, p. 10).

The excerpt alludes to the kind of emphasis that money has been given. The market economy has taken over a lot of importance in society. Queuing is an age-old practice that has characterized human order and civility. Such high order practices that have been held dear in the community are now being abandoned in the place of money being exchanged for services such as queuing. The author attempts to highlight the progress that society has failed to make. The author also highlights the freedom that money has been given in the current times. Moreover, Sandel tries to point out that there has been minimal effort to control money’s influence over society. He intends to show the reader that there are implications currently being experienced in the community, such as the degradation of social values resulting from money’s importance (Sandel, 2012, p. 11). The author seeks to show that individual social values need to be preserved and that money should not exert such tremendous influence over humanity.

Chapter 2 Excerpt

‘…Barbara Harris, the founder of a North Carolina–based charity called Project Prevention, has a market-based solution: offer drug-addicted women $300 cash if they will undergo sterilization or long-term birth control…’ (Sandel, 2012, p. 21).

In this excerpt, the author further highlights the significance of cash in day to day human life. Money has been at the core of human commercial activity for an extended period of time. The longevity of money’s use is perhaps the reason for human inventiveness to make money such a pivotal figure in day to day life. The excerpt highlights an important social issue that society is currently monetizing. Childbirth is one of the most human actions. It characterizes humanity since it involves physiological processes that no one can allow to happen without consent. Childbirth should not be monetized, and it should be the mother’s right to choose whether or not to give birth. The author highlights the irony of providing mothers money for them not to give birth. This excerpt is in perfect tandem with the book’s overall message since it highlights the skewed nature of society and the erosion of morality due to monetizing of most sides of day-to-day human life.

Chapter 3 Excerpt

‘…Consider friendship. Suppose you want more friends than you have. Would you try to buy some? Not likely. A moment’s reflection would lead you to realize that it wouldn’t work. A hired friend is not the same as a real one…’ (Sandel, 2012, p. 50)

Some things should not and cannot be bought. Friendship is an arbitrary human quality that is achieved through a deep connection between people. The author suggests that such deep human relationships ought to be established solely through one-on-one contact between people. The chapter’s central message is that morality has been quickly crowded by the lack of control on what market factors determine. There are things in life that should not be purely down to the law of supply and demand. Friendship is one of these things. Sandel recognizes that morals have been given a backseat in most things in life. There are times when people are too dependent on their financial abilities that deny them the opportunity to observe and take part in social interactions. The overdependence on money means that most individuals neglect their social roles. The author gives an example of a friend who is only loyal to an individual due to money. The author explains that such a friend cannot be devoted to the individual with money since friendship is built on a false backdrop. As noted by the author, true friendship is earned through socialization and trust as opposed via the use of money.

The author makes a good point about the belief that most individuals in society have currently accorded monetary resources. This situation is not only as the author has painted it in the book since several other scenarios in day-to-day life are similar to what the author is talking about in the excerpt. There have been many a time when individuals have married for the sake of wealth. For most individuals who choose to go down such a route, important social feelings such as love are not given the required level of consideration. There are also times when individuals buy marriages for the sake of gaining things like citizenship. Marriage for citizenship usually works through a formalized marriage in which an individual asks for money to sign the marriage documents. It is almost like paying for a signature. The two examples above can be compared with the author’s example of people getting US citizenship since they can invest $500,000 and create more than ten jobs (Sandel, 2012, p. 3). All the four examples above show that things such as marriage, friendship, and citizenship are now items to be traded on. Initially, the things mentioned above were cherished by society, and it was unheard of that one would pay money to get either of the three. As it is now, most people are inclined to get whatever they think they need, and they use their financial resources to get them.

Chapter 4 Excerpt

‘When his widow, Vicki Rice, learned of Walmart's windfall, she was outraged. Why should the company be able to profit from her husband's death? He had worked long hours for the company, sometimes as much as eighty hours a week. "They used Mike terribly," she said, "and then they go out and collect $300,000? It's very immoral…' (Sandel, 2012, p. 69)

Insurance is a trend that has seen most individuals and companies invest money in the form of premiums to avoid suffering an extreme loss on the occurrence of a tragic event. Life insurance has also become popular where individuals or companies (the excerpt is a perfect example of this) take covers pegged on their lives. Money has become quite important that people seek to profit even out of an individual's death. There are three crucial days in an individual's life; the day a person is born, the day a person marries, and the day a person dies. Death has long been solemn to humanity. The respect given to death by society is evident from the nature in which most people bury their dead. The dead are mostly given decent sendoffs, thus characterizing the importance with which most human beings regard death.

Death should not be an opportunity for individuals to make profits. In as much as insurance premiums on individual's lives are perfectly legal, they showcase the freedom of access that markets have been given in social life. There are specific actions that are perfectly okay before the law. However, some of these actions lack a moral basis, and thus individuals should avoid engaging in them. The company in question in the excerpt had several ethical options that it could take. The first action would be to forfeit the insurance premium to the wife due to the fact that the deceased died on the job. The company could also have decided to rescind any such future insurance policies since its current system showcases the company's lack of care for its employees. The moral choices given above would have given the company a good reputation, but the chances of the company having made them are next to zero.

In current monetized world, most businesses and even most individuals usually take whatever opportunity that they can get to make more money. Money has become increasingly crucial that no one is generally willing to forego the chance to make it. Most individuals and businesses would prefer engaging in acts that typically lack a moral basis for purposes of profit instead of engaging in acts of real humanity (Sandel, 2012, p. 75). The dearth of humanity has become a real problem since corporations and individuals take advantage of loopholes in the law to commit atrocities against their fellow human beings. The excerpt is a perfect example of how greed has taken over most human beings' minds, such that people have the least concern for the damage their actions cause on fellow human beings.

Chapter 5

'…Baseball stars began signing autographs for fees that varied with their status. In 1986, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller sold his autograph at collectors' shows for $2 each. Three years later, Joe DiMaggio was signing for $20, Willie Mays for $10 to $12, Ted Williams for $15. (Feller's signing price rose to $10 by the 1990s.) Since these retired baseball greats played in the era before huge salaries, it is hard to fault them for cashing in when the opportunity arose…' (Sandel, 2012, p. 86).

Sport has increasingly become paramount in today's social context. Most sportspeople make absurd amounts of money by virtue of their positions in elite sports teams. As sports teams have grown to become critical social entities, most sportspeople have also grown in presence and influence. Sportspeople have become crucial social individuals, and their presence and power have been made even more pronounced by social media. Despite the importance that most sports personalities have, most of them are not playing their important social roles with the nobility that they deserve. As critical social individuals who are earning plenty of income, sports people should not be charging people in society for things as trivial as autographs. Autographs should be given solely for free and without pay since that indicates a human touch. Regardless of the importance that money provides a single individual, it should never be an opportunity for the individual to extort others.

People who have the most money ought to exercise the most outstanding level of humanity. Having money and a high social position should not allow people to extort money from other individuals. It is unimaginable that an individual earning close to $23 million a year can take money from another individual in the form of payment for an autograph. It begs the question, then, is an autograph a product or a service? Does it fulfill any need for the individual who receives it? And if the answer to both questions above is yes, the question that has to be asked is, does an autograph morally merit payment? It is a simple stroke of the pen on a piece of paper. Selling an autograph, especially for an individual who earns millions in a year, showcases how global human society has changed. The greed for money has relegated humanity to a back seat, which usually means that nobody cares whatever consequences will come about due to actions they engage in to get more money.

The excerpt shows that retired baseball players are also interested in the autograph business. The players have noticed that there is an opportunity for them to make some money out of their reputation. As essential and respected social individuals, the players' actions embody precisely what is wrong with the fabric of society today. Most things have now been commoditized, and society seems inclined to continue with the same trend. The excerpt serves as the perfect edifice of what the author is trying to say. Michael takes extreme care to ensure that the book culminates to a particular point of fact. Therefore, the example given in the excerpt is the perfect complement of the overall theme in the book.

Central Arguments in the Text

The book has several arguments that make a lot of sense. The first argument is that the market economy has been given too much power over private civilians' lives. Michael uses a lot of examples to detail the manner through which the market economy is currently dominant in the lives of most individuals. An example of an industry that Michael talks of in the book is the memorabilia market. Trivialities in society now mean that small items are sold for so much money only because they belonged to a particular athlete (Sandel, 2012, p. 87). There are times when sportspeople have auctioned items of no significance. Michael recalls when '…In 2002, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez auctioned a piece of used chewing gum for $10,000…' claiming that the proceeds would go to charity (Sandel, 2012, p. 87). The trivial nature of such an auction dictates how life is currently monetized.

The book has also been relatively consistent in the themes presented by the author. The author seems to urge the readers to veer away from judging everything through the use of a monetary value. The author insists that society's faith in money has already been proven wrong. The author gives the global financial crisis as an example of when money failed to safeguard society's interests. Michael also points to the emphasis given to money as a leading cause of greed and materialism The author suggests that greed and materialism have led to the erosion of social values. Things that were previously considered immoral are now represented with monetary values. Sandel opines that, the materialistic nature of the current social fabric is also blamed for enhancing social inequality.

Most people in society are currently judged by their net worth. The author insists that society overlooks some of the behaviors exhibited by individuals even when they are morally not correct. To explain the point mentioned above, the author uses an example of how corporations use insurance policies to profit where they ought not to be benefiting. The example highlighted is in the excerpts above. It highlights how everyone else stands by and watches when an individual is actively made to suffer by a giant corporation (Sandel, 2012, p. 73). This example and other similar examples used by the author have ensured that there is a clear perception of the concepts being discussed by the author.

Recommendations and Conclusion

It is clear and evident that some things should not be bought. The book has been quite convincing in reiterating this argument, and the author has made use of some good examples to explain why this ought to remain the position. However, the book has also categorically maintained that many people have adopted the monetized way of life as a standard social norm. This propensity to put a monetary value on things has led to a necessity for change. People ought to be made to understand that there is much being lost at the moment. As a result, the current social perception of money and its extension to things that should never have had monetary values in the first place. There ought to be a balance, and as suggested by the author, a national and global conversation ought to be had on what can be bought and sold.

Having a national conversation on what people can buy or sell doesn't necessarily mean that the free market economy model should be scrapped. Markets ought to have the freedom to dictate the prices of sellable commodities. The conversation should simply revolve around making it clear what constitutes a marketable product and what doesn't. No one currently has the task of looking after humanity in society. Society is becoming more cut-throat in its application, with people having the least possible concern for the next man. The greed and materialism that currently epitomizes most people in society should be rooted out for there to be some semblance of morality in society again. Non-for-profit organizations have played a significant role in ensuring that society balances off some of their immoral acts. However, the effort needed to establish a better social balance is more than what NGOs can manage at the moment. Therefore, it is vital to ensure that NGOs are given more mainstream help to ensure that they check excesses in society relating to greed and materialism. If the two excesses can be prevented, the rest of society will have balance, and monetization will be a less than attractive option. This way, it will be easier to achieve a better moral platform in society.


Sandel, M. (2012). What Money Cant’s Buy. The moral Limits of Markets.

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