If I ruled the world: Michael Sandel

Prospect Magazine

If I ruled the world: Michael Sandel


It is time to restore the distinction between good and gold

If I ruled the world, I would rewrite the economics textbooks. This may seem a small ambition, unworthy of my sovereign office. But it would actually be a big step toward a better civic life. Today, we often confuse market reasoning for moral reasoning. We fall into thinking that economic efficiency—getting goods to those with the greatest willingness and ability to pay for them—defines the common good. But this is a mistake.

Consider the case for a free market in human organs—kidneys, for example. Textbook economic reasoning makes such proposals hard to resist. If a buyer and a seller can agree on a price for a kidney, the deal presumably makes both parties better off. The buyer gets a life-sustaining organ, and the seller gets enough money to make the sacrifice worthwhile. The deal is economically efficient in the sense that the kidney goes to the person who values it most highly.

But this logic is flawed, for two reasons. First, what looks like a free exchange might not be truly voluntary. In practice, the sellers of kidneys would likely consist of impoverished people desperate for money to feed their families or educate their children. Their choice to sell would not really be free, but coerced, in effect, by their desperate condition.

So before we can say whether any particular market exchange is desirable, we have to decide what counts as a free choice rather than a coerced one. And this is a normative question, a matter of political philosophy.

The second limitation to market reasoning is about how to value the good things in life. A deal is economically efficient if both parties consider themselves better off as a result. But this overlooks the possibility that one (or both) of the parties may value the things they exchange in the wrong way. For example, one might object to the buying and selling of kidneys—even absent crushing poverty—on the grounds that we should not treat our bodies as instruments of profit, or as collections of spare parts. Similar arguments arise in debates about the moral status of prostitution. Some say that selling sex is degrading, even in cases where the choice to do so is not clouded by coercion.

I’m not saying that, if I ruled the world, I would ban these practices. I have a bigger goal in mind: to loosen the hold that economic reasoning exerts on the public mind, and on our moral and political imagination.

Not only in textbooks, but also in everyday life, economics presents itself as a value-neutral science of human behaviour. Increasingly, we accept this way of thinking and apply it to all manner of public policies and social relations. But the economistic view of the world is corrosive of democratic life. It makes for an impoverished public discourse, and a managerial, technocratic politics.

So here is how I would revise the textbooks: I would abandon the claim that economics is a free-standing, value-neutral science, and would reconnect it with its origins in moral and political philosophy. The classical political economists of the 18th and 19th centuries—from Adam Smith to Karl Marx to John Stuart Mill—rightly conceived economics as a subfield of moral and political philosophy. In the 20th century, economics departed from this tradition, defined itself as an autonomous discipline, and aspired to the rigour of the natural sciences.

The notion that economics offers a value-neutral science of human behaviour is implausible but increasingly influential. Consider the growing use of cash incentives to solve social problems. The NHS is experimenting with what some have called “health bribes”—cash rewards to people for losing weight, quitting smoking, or taking their prescribed medications. In the United States, some school districts have tried to improve academic achievement among disadvantaged students by offering them cash rewards for good grades, high test scores, or reading books. A charity that operates in the US and the UK offers drug-addicted women £200 to be sterilised, or to accept long-term birth control devices.

As ruler of the world, I would not necessarily abolish these schemes. But I would insist that we ask, in each case, whether the cash incentive might degrade the goods at stake, or drive out non-market attitudes worth caring about. For example, if we pay kids to read books, do we simply add an additional incentive to whatever motivations may already exist? Or, do we teach them that reading is a chore, and so run the risk of corrupting or crowding out the intrinsic love of learning?

If market values sometimes crowd out attitudes and values worth caring about (such as the love of learning for its own sake), then market reasoning must answer to moral reasoning. Standard economic models assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they exchange. But if buying and selling certain goods changes their meaning, then the case for markets cannot rest on efficiency considerations alone. It must also rest on a moral argument about how to value the goods in question.

While revising the economics textbooks, I would issue one modest decree: I’d ban the use of an ungainly new verb that has become popular these days in the jargon of politicians, bankers, corporate executives, and policy analysts: “incentivise.” Banning this verb might help us recover older, less economistic ways of seeking the public good—deliberating, reasoning, persuading.

  1. September 21, 2012

    D. Dubowski

    Good article, however it fails to address the needs of the less well-off. Yes, they are economically coerced by circumstances to do whatever they can for money, but they nevertheless DO need the money. This will be regardless of the distinctions made between moral value and money’s worth. Until they have the same choices as the better-off, then the values referred to will seem somewhat academic.

  2. September 21, 2012

    Navin Kumar

    I read this essay when it was published on the Boston Review site:http://bostonreview.net/BR37.3/ndf_michael_j_sandel_markets_morals.php

    It was interesting then, but Sandel’s use of the same flawed ideas is simply irritating the second time round.

    He has three reasons for why kidney markets are bad: 1. They’re unfair because of coercion. I dealt with it here: http://nationofbeancounters.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/organ-markets-and-fairness/

    2. They’re morally degrading, due to which…

    3. They’re supply may decline.

    I dealt with these here: http://nationofbeancounters.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/organ-markets-and-moral-corruption/

    Having written these rebuttals once, I won’t copy-paste the arguments here.

  3. September 21, 2012


    There is no argument here. There is no substantive claim. There’s barely even an anti-market bias, just a hint of maybe if you were King of the World, Oh What A Wonderful World It Would Be.

    Your first flaw of markets is not a flaw. Or it’s only your opinion that it’s a flaw. The argument is obfuscating, you appeal to our emotions, “Oh how lamentable that this person had to resort to selling a kidney to feed his family.” One can just as easily say, “it’s really wonderful that he was able to partake in a safe medical procedure to earn money to feed his family.” You try to claim that poverty coerced him into this transaction. That is an outrageously fallacious statement.

    Your second ‘limitation’ is no better. Going back to the kidney example–I don’t know why at the core of the principal argument you make against the market system is one as drastic as organ selling–you say that people might ‘value’ things the wrong way, or some vague statement like this. One might believe that one should not treat his body as spare parts, you say? You’re right, one might believe that. In which case, he’s not going to partake in such an exchange. What you are really saying is one (the one, being you) might believe that anybody should not treat their body as spare parts, and thus one’s (namely, your) opinion should prevent all others from engaging in the practice.

    Your right, we should encourage people to value things that can’t have dollar signs on them, like family. Or books. But a market system let’s us engage in voluntary free trade that gives us provisions for our family. Or books.

    • September 30, 2012

      Innate Thought

      What about when an officer of “Law” suffers the same economic difficulties suggested above and turns toward a merit system where by virtue of the submission of a citation an “extra” income is available to the officer.
      In Sausalito, Calif. it is department policy for police officers to go to court, for the citations they issue, on the officers day off; but, the officer is compensated 4 hours overtime pay by the department. So basically anyone is subject to the earning potential of the officer and in economic difficult times the officer can abuse this privilege to balance out his economic disposition. This is another way to put it I think.

  4. September 21, 2012

    Ben Goodman

    There is no chance of restoring a moral compass to businesses. In a global economy, those that once had a moral compass have either lost it or have been overwhelmed by those that never had one.

    Businesses can always be trusted – to behave like businesses. They are not in the business of putting the greater good ahead of profits. They never create a job unless they expect to make a profit on it, by the most exploitative means they can get away with.

    The free market has internal controls on greed and incompetence, but these controls only work over the long term and on global scales. Intense regulation and competent oversight is necessary to mitigate the devastating effects of greed and incompetence on short term, local scales.

  5. September 22, 2012

    Jim C

    Appealing. I am constantly at a loss as to why my ‘market efficiency’ colleagues and friends will absolutely not not distinguish between market goods and public goods. And the moral dimension of public goods is the casualty when this distinction is lost. And the fabric of society torn by self interest as opposed to an enlightened version of same will eventually be in tatters.

  6. September 22, 2012


    Odd commentary, Michael.

    Certainly, it is easy to agree that people should not only make decisions based upon economics. I’ve never met anyone who does, and if an economics text book suggested as much, my guess is it is in need of a rewrite. We don’t need a totalitarian censor to weed out this type of nonsense. Many relationships are expressly non economic. Kahneman covers this nicely in his recent book.

    I agree that economics is not value free. It is inherently about creating value or utility, though it tries to avoid projecting what the desires are onto people.

    I especially disagree with the implication that we are overly influenced by economic thinking. My experience is that economics is extremely counterintuitive and that the vast majority of people are extremely biased against the way complex adaptive systems work. I would argue we would benefit immeasurably by increasing the awareness of economics in the general population, and among opinion leaders

    Even worse, it is odd that you cite two greatly illegal activities as examples of how we should not just be subservient to market thinking. Obviously we aren’t, or they wouldn’t be illegal. Right?

    The danger of creating a czar for economics (which I am pretty sure you are being facetious on) is that we will get wars on which philosophy gets to dominate. It’s easy to root for totalitarian regimes where we get to take the helm. It is important to remember that a robust system is one where your worst enemies might also take the wheel. I’d suggest trying to keep politics out of it. We need to be tolerant of others values and careful not to project what we think they should do upon them. Yes, this means trying to persuade them.

    • September 30, 2012

      Innate Thought

      I see a sense of false protection going on here; as it seems that the people who would be appalled in experiencing the negative of the aforementioned are also those who would facilitate the opposite actions. This is precisely, in my opinion, what is meant by Prof. Sandel.

      If I offered you a hundred dollars to remove your post, or if I were to suggest to my computer guru that for a price he would remove your statement, If I went to google and payed them to a large sum to kick out your comments from the internet is that free market? I am free to censor your comments, for a price, I know that but are you at the same time free to make them any longer? In a free market place?

      If my house is a boat out on the bay where I live outside the commercial realm is it fair to kick me out, so that the spot I formerly dwelled can now be rented to the tourist coming to watch the Americas Cup Race? Is making someone homeless as valued as earning a city revenue to provide for the greater good of the people?

      In todays “Free Market” Money; can buy more than rights can provide, so Money is the both the tool and commodity of our “Free Market”.
      “It takes Money to make Money”.

      I recall when the “Weekend” was a time when no one worked and it meant something, today any day can be a day off and the weekend is not so commonly shared, except in schooling; therefore, weekends are sort of irrelevant to many degrees. So why do commercials talk of and promote the weekend? To keep us programmed?

      There definitely is a sort of social programming going on; but it seems, one must suffer through it in order to acknowledge it. Most support it until they see it for what it is. A sort of greed or lack of ability to show self restraint. But with the heavy influence or forcefulness of “markets” seldom is it a “Free Choice” more often it appears one of Forced or “Coerced” action. There is nothing new under the sun, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is insightful here, for once one suffers it, one fights it, which generates more money in the process even though social resolve is seldom found. All the while society suffers during the process as individuals are displaced, or psychologically effected which tend to generate grief and disturbances in the society as the individuals wrestle with the difficulty brought on by the “Free Market” and its abuse. It seems that only markets profit from this mechanic operation so capable of consuming humanity and human life.

      • October 1, 2012


        Sorry Innate, but your comment is kind of rambling, shifting from editorial coercion, to mooring privileges and beyond.

        If I enter a comment in a web site that allows editorial removal, then I am free to do so or not do so. If you rent a boat mooring from another party you are welcome to do so for whatever length of time you view as critical. If you want to purchase the right to rent it in perpetuity, then expect to pay substantially more for such a privilege. You want to pay the short term price but expect the benefit of perpetuity. This is called free riding.

        It is real easy for people to take for granted that their standard of living is twenty times better than their ancestors, that their lifespan is twice as long, and their quality of life is incomparably better. Then they rail on about the evils of the engine that created this miracle.

        It is almost comical, in a dark comedy kind of way.

  7. September 22, 2012

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    If I ruled the world first I do destroy all nuclear weaponry from world. Next thing I do open the world visa and passport free any one can live ,Allow education free, physical work some hours must be there.For students play some hours must.If there is no national borders I think people like happily

    • September 26, 2012


      No national borders is a wonderful idea. Lets get the human race over with asap . Your idea would do it.

  8. September 25, 2012


    So in Sandel’s moral hierarchy, saving a life has less moral value than preventing one from using his or her body as an instrument of profit (aren’t athletes and models using their bodies as instruments of profit?). Or, at least, he needs to make some sort of argument to that effect over and above the hand-waving of this article.

  9. September 25, 2012


    A good article (of course!). So the question arises: what does Prof Sandel kick against John Rawls’s ideas so much? Is this thesis really so different from the idea of justice as fairness?

  10. September 26, 2012

    scott carney

    I appreciate Michael Sandel using organ trafficking to explore the limits of the economic model. Last year I wrote a book called “The Red Market: On the trail of the world’s organ brokers, bone thieves, blood farmers and child traffickers” which detailed illegal supply chains for ten types of human tissue. Since then I’ve been in non-stop arguments with economists who honestly and earnestly believe that regulated markets for human flesh could, indeed, function better than the current system.

    Sandel hits the nail on the head when he says that these exchanges–even when agreed upon–are fundamentally exploitative. We should not apply the same market logic to body parts that we do to the manufacture of shoes.

    Take for instance the big business of human eggs and surrogate wombs. It is already common to hire a surrogate mother in India to bear a child for a western couple. Meanwhile competition between clinics to lower prices means treating those women more and more like cattle. Their rights to the cells in their womb steadily retreating in front of a corporate and legal onslaught.

    This year there will be about 5000 such pregnancies. In ten years it might be 50,000. What does it say about humanity that we have moved in this direction?

    Here’s a link to my book. It’s worth a read. You can also find it illegally online if you are into that kind of thing. http://www.amazon.com/The-Red-Market-Brokers-Traffickers/dp/0061936464

    • December 31, 2013

      Bob Roberts

      So those women in India have a choice – be treated like cattle if that is indeed the case and accept the payment or decline the payment and not be treated like cattle. If they walk away they lose nothing, if they accept the money they also accept the consequences. That is not coercion as they are free to choose not to change anything, or to go along with the consequences of the offer. Yes, poverty may make them more willing to accept the payment, but then they make the choice as to which alternative is best to their current situation.

  11. September 27, 2012


    Dragovic, you ought to look up the history of Nation State – the world has only known national borders for just over a hundred years, and before then the human race didn’t die.

  12. September 27, 2012


    I’m sure this will incite fiery and poison-filled responses, but it needs to be said. Jesus Himself said, “You cannot serve God and money. You cannot have two masters.” Beyond the basic spiritual implications, He was also making the very clear point that to the degree that we idolize wealth and the accululation of it, we devalue humanity, human worth, and the ability to see ourselves as beings created in the image of God. Wealth and the pursuit of accumulating more and more ot it feeds the ego and the desires of self—just the opposite of what all religions (not just Christianity) teach about sacrificial giving of ourselves for the benefit of others. I am both slightly amused and deeply saddened at the comments on here by those who clearly place more value on piling up wealth than they place on reducing the suffering and increasing the self-worth of the poor, the hungry, the sick, the dying. Capitalism as we know it is simply a code name for socially-acceptable greed. The true value of wealth can be measured by how much of it you can take with you when you leave this life.

    • September 28, 2012



      I would offer that you are being unfair to the process which has done more for the disadvantaged than every good intention and selfless act since the emergence of humanity. Since the advent of agriculture, humanity has lived short lives, with limited freedom and opportunity at what amounts to about two dollars a day. This means many of us starved to death, many of our kids died before their fifth birthday, and those that did make it to middle age tended to be diseased and broken.

      Greed was not what made free enterprise possible — we’ve always had that. The breakthrough was for us to discover institutions which allowed people to pursue their own ends in ways which cause them to also serve others. Free enterprise does this by aiming us in positive sum, win/win directions. When I go to work, I spend my efforts trying to serve others by creating products and services which they value. I create value or myself and my family by creating value for others.

      Free enterprise doesn’t give food in a zero sum fashion to the poor. It teaches the poor how to create their own food in a positive sum way which enhances themselves and others.

      Of course you are right that there is more to life than money, and that some people are imbalanced. Free enterprise does not create this aspect of human nature, it just forces it to be aimed in directions which serve others.

      • December 31, 2013

        Bob Roberts

        I apologise, I intended that comment as a reply to the one above yours.

    • December 31, 2013

      Bob Roberts

      So true wealth is a bit of soil, your burial garments and a coffin, as that is all you can take with you. No-one (or a few insane people that I do not know of perhaps) argues that you can use money when you’re dead, but what else can you use? Death is simply the termination of all these transactions, financial or otherwise.

  13. September 28, 2012


    For what it’s worth, I never said greed is what made free enterprise possible. My intent was to point out that capitalism without built-in ethics and morality is nothing more than a means to feed the human failing of greed and amass wealth at the expense of anyone who gets in the way. Perhaps you are an exception to the rule, but I find it difficult, almost impossible, to believe that most individuals in capitalistic endeavors do what they do in order to “serve others by creating products and services they value”. They do what they do in order to create products and services other people will pay them for. I agree that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. But we now live in a world where insurance companies exist not primarily to serve those in need, but to amass wealth from those who can afford to pay for their services. The rest—those who may need health insurance but cannot afford it—are ignored and left to their fate. A company that could settle for a slightly lower profit margin refuses to do so and sacrifices the truly needy to make more money because they value wealth more than human beings. I live in North Carolina where furniture was once a booming industry. Then our government decided it was a good thing to lower all trade restrictions that would prevent companies from outsourcing jobs. From the perspective of a true capitalist, it probably makes sense. From the perspective of those people whose lives were dismantled when their jobs were dissolved, it amounts to greed, pure and simple. The company owners found they could have their furniture manufactured in China or India for a fraction of what they were paying Americans to manufacture it. So they tossed their employees to the wolves and went with what would ramp up their profits. Now they bring that same furniture back to America to sell to Americans (since the people who make it in Asia and India can’t afford to actually buy any of it)—the same Americans whose jobs they exported in the name of profits. These are the things I am talking about when I say capitalism is based on greed. Indeed, a fundamental tenet of our free enterprise system is “caveat emptor”—let the buyer beware. A system based on a warning to customers to be careful or they will be taken advantage of? This is the system you are lauding? I am not opposed to free enterprise or capitalism on the most basic level. If you work harder than everyone else, you have some right to make more money than they do. The problem is than “more money” is never enough money, and sooner or later (almost always sooner), what is fair and decent and right go out the window because they are seen as hindering profits. The moment you separate capitalism and a free-market economy from ethics, morals, and fundamental human values, you create a law-of-the-jungle society where the strong survive and the weak or the helpless or the old or the sick get trampled underfoot in the name of bigger profits. That may not have been the intent, but that is always how it ends. Always.

    • December 31, 2013

      Bob Roberts

      The argument is not that people set out intending to serve others but that the system is designed so that in the process of enriching oneself you simultaneously provide a product or service that is useful to your customers.

      • December 31, 2013

        Bob Roberts

        In addition, I forgot to mention that those jobs outsourced to India or China are now providing work for those people. Why is it a divine right for the US to monopolise furniture manufacturing for itself? If labour is cheaper in India or China, it is because there are fewer jobs there in relation to each country’s population. That means that free-market economics is actually gradually redistributing wealth, by providing additional jobs in poorer countries precisely because of the profit motive.

  14. September 29, 2012



    You seem to be using the word “greed” as a substitute for “self interested acts that lead to results I don’t like.”

    The waiter, the craftsman, the investor and the entrepreneur are all engaged in activities where they serve themselves and those they are responsible for by also providing something of value for others. Otherwise the consumer would not buy it. Insurance companies have always concentrated on providing protection for catastrophic loss in return for a predictable premium. They are not intended as charity organizations. These are different entities. If you criticize market organizations based upon expectations of philanthropy, then you are confusing their intended role. They are no more morally responsible for providing free health care than you or I, nor are they more so responsible than the local restaurant is to provide free food for all, or the local carpenter to build everyone’s house for free.

    The example of furniture is telling. For untold generations, incumbents in jobs or business have used coercion to force others to pay for their services. The guilds and monopolists did this, preventing economic advance and innovation. The very fact that others were willing to build furniture at a fraction of the cost reveals that consumers were not getting their interests served, nor were willing and able workers in China and Mexico. And we care about all humans right?

    Workers were not tossed to the wolves. Workers were replaced by others who also had families to protect. The net result is improved efficiency and wider spread human prosperity. those willing to work for less deserve a chance at life too. Those charging above the market rate need to find another way which they can serve their fellow man. It obviously isn’t in building low cost furniture.

    Yes, you can bemoan dynamism and change. Change can be painful. The history reveals the alternative is universal impoverishment.

    Yes, you can bemoan competition, but remember the competition is “competing to serve others better”. We are competing to cooperate better and to optimize positive sum value added interactions.

    History reveals ten thousand societies for ten thousand years attempted to follow your advice and throw sand in the gears of voluntary positive sum interactions. The result was 100% consistent. Poverty and short lifespans with no freedom. The exception has been post enlightenment societies such as The Netherlands, Britain and the US which allowed free enterprise to blossom. This was the path to prosperity, welfare, freedom, education and opportunity. We owe our lives to it. Literally.

  15. September 29, 2012


    Webster’s dictionary defines greed as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money) than is needed”. I am not confusing the term “greed” with anything. I understand the meaning of the term clearly. The people who own the companies that moved the furniture production overseas are already in the top few percent of the population financially. All their financial needs are met and far, far beyond. Do you seriously intend to argue that they outsourced these jobs because they were so concerned with the poor underprivileged people living in third world countries? That was their motivation? I doubt even you could say that with a straight face. History also reveals ten thousand societies for ten thousand years that were quite wiling to walk all over the human rights of others if they deemed such action beneficial to their own condition. I have no way of knowing this, but I would wager all I am worth that your salary places you far above the national average. Only people who already have money make the argument you continue to make. I am not opposed to money and I am not opposed to making a profit. I am not opposed to free enterprise and I am not opposed to capitalis,. What I am opposed to is placing the acquisition of continually more and more money above the needs of other human beings who have far less than you do. Money and the uncontrolled desire for more and more of it does nothing positive for any person nor any society. Capitalists defend our system like it was handed down to us from God Himself. It wasn’t. There is nothing sacred about any economic system. Indeed, the greatest economic system can best be judged as the one which benefits the most people in the greatest fashion. Capitalism dangles a carrot in front of people—work hard and you can become rich too, it tells them. But it is a stacked deck. Yes, a few get rich. But in order to do so, others must be pushed further down. Only fools believe there is an unlimited source of profit, an unlimited expansion bubble. Capitalism as it is run in America is a huge pyramid scheme—it will work only as long as we maintain our monopoly on production. As long as we control who can make what and how many, we can stay in control of the game. But that is changing—indeed, has changed a lot. We are consuming our planet’s resources faster and faster and faster because everybody else (in China, in India, in Russia…) wants a piece of the “get rich” pie too. But there is only one pie, and it is NOT of infinite size. When some get more, some have to get less. Americans are used to capitalism and accept it because for two centuries we have always had access to the majority of the pie. No longer. And frankly, I am sick to death of hearing about the “roles” of systems. The Nazi party was designed with a specific role in mind as well. Just because a system has a designated role doesn;t mean that role is noble or proper or humane. Capitalism rewards hard work—but it also rewards those who start further ahead than the rest. Money makes money—and most without money never ever get the chance to play the game because the game is rigged against them. Everyone is morally obligated to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. Wanting to make a bigger profit doesn’t excuse insurance executives from the mandates of humanity. Each one of us—every last one of us—is our brother’s keeper, and when any system is built on love of money or the lust to get more and more of it regardless of need, that system is driven by greed and has become corrupt. Capitalism is not and has never been about making a sufficient profit to meet your needs. It is and has always been about the pursuit of wealth. No economist who knows anything would say otherwise. My point is that unless wealth is generated and acquired for the singular purpose of benefiting others who are less fortunate, it is simply greed that drives the pursuit. If you wish to attempt to defend greed, that is another argument. But to deny that capitalism and the acquisition of vast wealth in America has been about anything other than greed is to ignore history.

    • September 29, 2012


      The motivation of those that outsourced the jobs is that they agreed to act as agents responsible for optimizing the return on investments that were dedicated to solving the problem of providing furniture at maximum value to consumers.  They were acting on their own behalf as agents with this responsibility.  Consumers, investors and third world employees were all benefited due to this action, regardless of whether it was intended by the managers or not.  Smith called it the invisible hand. 

      To be honest, I am retired and in the bottom quintile of income, but am by no means struggling.  However my position is irrelevant. The point is that economics is a counterintuitive complex adaptive system — possibly the most complex system in the universe — and our natural instincts lead us astray, and have done so since history began.  

      I too am opposed to anyone directly harming another for the pursuit of gain.  Offering a job to someone in Vietnam is not such an act.  It is an act which helps advance human prosperity without directly causing coercive harm to anyone.  Yes, the American worker has to find a new job, but that is the dynamic nature of the complex adaptive system.  If you stop the dynamism, you choke off the machine all together. Doing so would lead to the reversal of human well being over the past two hundred years.  At the extreme it would lead to billions of deaths, and human impoverishment.  You want this on your conscience? The point being that it may be convenient to oversimplify economics to something that matches how you would like the world to work,but reality has consequences.  When the results of your misguided good intentions lead to something worse than Pol Pot, don’t you think you should revise your world view?  Just asking.

      Free enterprise by definition does not work in a zero sum, win/lose fashion.  You are totally wrong here.  It is based upon voluntary, un-coerced mutually beneficial interactions which create net utility.  Pushing is not to be allowed. It is why we are no longer poor and short lived. Value self amplified through voluntary, positive sum interactions. I am not sure if anything is limitless, but for all intents and purposes, utility is not fundamentally limited by any law of physics that I know of — just by our ingenuity. 

      It is absolutely not true that for some to get more others must get less.  You are making the zero sum fallacy here (which in your defense even economists wrestled with for over a century before totally grasping). The root of the fallacy comes from viewing utility as objective rather than subjective. The rise of China and India aren’t threats for free markets.  They are wondrous breakthroughs for humanity as people that were previously locked out of the system now get to add value and gain benefit as well.  More people have risen out of poverty in the past decade than ever before in the history of the universe. How about celebrating the best news ever, rather than calling them greedy?

      You are wrong that “unless wealth is generated and acquired for the singular purpose of benefiting others who are less fortunate,” that it is destructive to the plight of humanity.  Here you are falling hook line and sinker for the fallacy of good intentions.  What matters is not so much intentions, but results.  Free markets direct the range of actions to voluntary interactions which are agreed to by both parties (exceptions to this are violations of the principles of free markets). This means that all parties expect to benefit and therefore gain by the interaction.  Over time they do.  That is where prosperity comes from.  Steve Jobs has done more for humanity than a million saints. 

      • December 31, 2013

        Bob Roberts

        I apologise again, because that reply was also meant for the comment above yours.

    • December 31, 2013

      Bob Roberts

      The motivation is irrelevant, it doesn’t make third-world workers poorer because the man at the top didn’t care about their lives but his bottom line. It may make them feel less valued, but that is Mr Evil Capitalist’s problem.
      There is not a “pie” of finite size that represents our economy, and that slices of it are merely redistributed. Economic growth represents a bigger pie, and that is theoretically infinite. Of course it is in reality constrained by natural resources (the “ingredients” of the pie), but once that point is reached there would be no system that could change that.
      Fundamentally, assuming we are all “our brothers’ keeper,” capitalism probably isn’t the right system, but do you think it is right to yoke everybody to an obligation that they never signed up to and have no moral imperative to fulfil that obligation, purely because some believe that to be the case? Capitalism is merely an economic system, not a system of morality, but it provides sufficient freedom for you to fulfil what you see as your obligations by donating your wealth and encouraging others to do the same. There is no justification for one that forces others to do so.

  16. September 30, 2012


    I think your last line there sums up your philosophy and perspective better than anything you have thus far said. You truly believe enomonics and capitalism can and should stand on their own, separate from morality, ethics, values, and principles. If someone wants to sell something and someone else wants to buy it, then we have commerce and that must be a good thing—regardless of what it is or the attendant morals or ethics of the sale. By your argument, if the man who makes all the bread chooses to sell it for $1000 per loaf so that only the wealthy can afford to eat, the resultant starvation of the masses is not the fault of the system. That is the inescapable logic of the capitalist argument for a free market. If demand sets the price, then those things in linited supply will always go to the wealthiest people—regardless of who else may need them more. Such has always been the case in every economic system. Those who can afford the medicine get well. Those who cannot, die, Those who can afford food will eat. Those who cannot, starve. I fully recognize how the system works. The problem that you and all those of like perspective never deal with is that human nature will always corrupt a workable system. Short of imposing regulations and limitations on capitalism, the richest will pile up money and the poor will never catch up, will never have enough, will never have an equal chance. And incidentally, those who rose out of poverty in the last decade had been artificially held in poverty for centuries by those in power who were, themselves, excessively wealthy. I have a problem with any system in which the citizens aspire to live in 6000 square foot homes while half the world sleeps in huts, glut themselves and then throw away more food than many entire third world families see in a day, and feel absolutely no remorse for our over-consumption and wastefulness. America makes up approximately 5% of the world’s population. We consume somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of its resources. Our carbon footprint is the size of Asia and South America put together. If you can honestly, with a straight face, say you don’t consider our system one of runaway greed, then there is nothing else I or anyone could say that would make any difference to you. All we have done in the last 30 years is export pur greed and insatiable appetite for money and things to the rest of the world and now they are just as infected. Steve Jobs did more for Steve Jobs than anyone else did, that’s for sure. And the compound in which he lived is a monument to just how little he cared about the hurting and helpless of our society. He wasn’t trying to help humanity—he was intent on building his legacy. For a free-market capitalist, he certainly did eberything in his power to keep Apple a completely proprietary company and all its offerings a monopoly. One last time—I am not opposed to money. I am opposed to the love and unrestrained headlong pursuit of wealth. Having a billion dollars, but hungering for another billion. Developing the rules of the game not to help others benefit from your success, but to maximize your own personal profits. SImply put, there are enough food, clean water, medicine, housing, clothing, and even luxury items for everyone in the world right now, right where we are—IF such a cast amount of the wealth wasn’t concentrated int he hands of such a tiny fraction of the human race. Capitalism as we know it, as we have shaped it, enables us to feel okay with having big homes and big cars and swimming pools and ginat-screen plasma TVs and diamond rings and a million dollars in an IRA while people around the world go to bed hungry every night. We think that because we worked hard for it, we deserve it. We feel better about our consumption when we tell ourselves that. But people still die of AIDS in large numbers in sub-Saharan Africa when we have all the drugs they need to extend their lives. Problem is that they can’t afford them. Money should be a means, not an end. And it should be the means to end suffering and pain and starvation and death, not just to make our retirement years cushy and allow us to have that second lakehouse and speedboat. The title of Adam Smith’s book was The Wealth of Nations. Seems pretty clear what he valued most.

    • September 30, 2012


      Smith was a moral philosopher, and his insights were on how we can enrich each others lives regardless of our intentions or motivations. The key is to establish proper institutions which foster mutually beneficial interactions. 

      Economics will never make any sense to you until you understand the various points I made. 

      1) It is a complex adaptive system. If someone wants to charge a grand for a loaf of bread, then other bakers will flock to the market, driving down the price until supply meets demand. Hence we get lots of good bread at an increasingly lower cost. Food has never been cheaper for the human race. We are becoming increasingly productive.

      2). It is a positive sum process which doesn’t just redistribute value, it creates it. It creates the medicine that keeps the sick alive. That is why we owe it our lives. It allows people to build 6000 foot houses by enriching the lives of those supplying the labor and materials. Americans don’t just consume a third, they create a third. Now the Chinese are getting a chance to create as well. We all benefit. If you fail to recognize the creative nature of the machine, and you try to divide it up equally, you will shut down the creation process and kill billions and leave the few survivors desolate. 

      If killing billions is not evil, then what is? Please, please, educate yourself on this topic before you cause irreparable harm

    • December 31, 2013

      Bob Roberts

      You believe that money should be means to ends dictated by those who don’t have any rather than those who do, and that money earned by people should be for the benefit of other people instead.
      How else do you propose that goods in limited supply should be rationed? Given away by lottery? First come first served? But then who pays the supplier? Should he work for free? Or should the rich pay but not benefit?
      GDP is not consumption. It is the products produced, the services provided and the resources mined or harvested in a particular economy. The economy may be exporting these goods, and therefore not consuming them. Or they could be being bought and stockpiled. The point is that you are opposed to people keeping the receipts of economic activity in favour of them being redistributed once people reach an arbitrary quota.

      • December 31, 2013

        Bob Roberts

        Unfortunately I suspect a problem with my computer now as I don’t think I would have made the mistake of posting a reply to the wrong comment for a third time. Again, this reply was intended for the comment above yours.

  17. October 2, 2012


    I was wrong—apparently you CAN make these ridiculous arguments with a straight face. I deeply resent your implication that I disagree with you because I don’t understand how economic systems work. Such comments are not only insulting, but deeply arrogant and self-serving. What we have in America is not free-market capitalism and you know it. Every economist knows it. Perhaps, in the beginning, it was closer to that ideal, but no longer. We have multinational corporations that have so much power, so much wealth, and control so much of the market that true competitiveness no longer exists in any serious measure. There are numerous corporate monopolies that dominate their respective corners of the business world and set prices at whatever they like. People don’t become capitalists to enrich the world and the lives of others—they become capitalists to make money and, hopefully, a lot of it. And you are just flat out wrong when you say Americans create a third as well as use a third. We don’t. Irreparable harm? Really? Like the irreparable harm done to the rain forests by capitalist-minded businesses? NO ONE in the world should be hungry. NO ONE in the world should die from lack of simple antibiotics or exposure to the weather. NO ONE in the world should grow up uneducated. We have the knowledge and the resources RIGHT NOW to vastly improve the lives of billions of people worldwide and we don’t because those who control the world’s wealth plan on keeping it for themselves. The ONLY time these venture capitalists help anyone else is when that is a by-product of adding to their own personal wealth. What did our free enterprise system do for the Native Americans who were living here when we got here? What did our free enterprise system do for Africans brought in chains to this country to serve as slaves to further our capitalistic ends in southern cotton fields? Sir, there is no such thing as an enonomic system that stands alone. You cannot divorce an economic system from the ethical and moral boundaries that govern it—or that fail to govern it. No economic system creates value. That is absurdity of the highest order. All that an economic system—ANY economic system—can hope to do is shape the way people think and work and do business within it. Capitalism—at least as it now exists in America—is a game of mirrors. One man gains when another man loses. Capitalist economists complain that we just have to increase the size of the pie and everybody will benefit. No they won’t. That is their illusion and their lie. You can’t just keep increasing the size of the pie any more than you can keep printing more and more money and expect it to hold its value. Eventually the bubble bursts. We live in a closed system—it is not subject to infinite growth. At some point, the population needed to support the top-heavy system will, by itself, kill humanity. One question—if capitalism gives us lots of good bread at increasingly lower costs, then why do we now have record numbers of Americans on food stamps? If our system works so well, why do we have a $15,000,000,000,000 national debt? Why do we have through the roof unemployment? Please note, for the record, that corporate executives at places like Bank of America and Exxon are receiving bigger bonuses than ever before. And yet you still stand there and argue it isn’t about greed. I don’t know how you can sleep at night.

    • October 7, 2012

      John Jay Gelles


      The results our present “system” achieves leave much to be desired:
      o poverty is inexcusable
      o pollution is too
      o popular ignorance too
      o failure to improve our performance is a crime

      Yet, almost all whom any of us blame for their contribution to our collective failure will say, “I never wanted what we have — I was born and it was thrust upon me.”

      Therefore I believe we need a method of collective constructive criticism. It might involve commenting to a public domain bulletin board that encouraged all to copy from each other what is commonly perveived or wanted by way of reform.

      You may be right that corporations are often at fault. But if we want results, we may have to ask all of us to cooperate and make changes to the rules that get the results we want. I would recommend one doctrine above others, if people would improve our collective lot:

      ….. The Sedond Bill of (Economic) Rights by FD Roosevelt, President, on Jan 11, 1944. (See Internet for detail)

    • December 31, 2013

      Bob Roberts

      You say that the current system is not based on free enterprise then attack historical atrocities as though they were a result of it. Make up your mind. Slavery was caused by people who weren’t restrained by the law from abusing other people. A free market is not some lawless, anarchic society as imagined by some of its opponents.

  18. November 24, 2012


    So if you ruled the world, you would establish ownership of other people’s bodily organs and continue laws that cause thousands of people to die annually, all because it makes you uncomfortable? You sound like truly amazing person.

    • December 27, 2012

      Atanu Dey

      Dan, thanks for the link to Herbert Gintis response to Sandel. That rebuttal is absolutely worth reading.

  19. November 27, 2012


    So according to Mr. Sandel it is all right to donate your organs but absolutely horrible if you would like to receive some compensation for this generous act. Even from a purely allocative efficiency standpoint, it is optimal to allow people to trade their organs.

  20. November 28, 2012

    Alfredo Pina

    I think some of the people commenting here are really missing the point. Economics should not be a natural science, but should be a treated as moral philosophy. This article is much too short to address the concerns brought up in the comments. Try reading his books. Or better yet have an argument with someone who can reply back.

    • December 31, 2013

      Bob Roberts

      Economics is not a moral philosophy as that is simply not what it deals with. It is concerned with how to best maximise the production and efficient allocation of goods and services. It leaves people free to decide their own morality when it comes to engaging in a certain transaction.

  21. December 10, 2012


    I must say, Roger, that you did an outstanding job of responding to Robert.

    • December 27, 2012

      Atanu Dey

      I second JH. I could not agree more with Roger. Thank you, Roger.

  22. February 27, 2013


    I agree with the critics – this is pretty unimpressive. Overdrawn examples and cliched observations to make weak cover for an underlying liberal-socialism?
    IMO, free-market economies DO reinforce morality because they are based on autonomy and aim at the improvement of self-worth. The latter does not have to be defined in terms of pure gold but rather as Aristotelian well-being. That’s a great goal.

  23. July 22, 2013

    John Lee

    Dr. Sandel believes that the buying and selling of goods and services must also rest on a moral argument about how to value the goods in question. But he never specifies whose morals. Morality based on what? A morality based on one person’s ideas is tyrannical; one based on an Aristotelian Philosopher Kings is elitist and oligarchical; and one based on democratic elections is crass and ugly. If everyone had the ability to think objectively, this would not be a problem. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people know little to nothing of philosophy and rely on subjective whim. Dr. Sandel fails to answer this question and considering his intelligence, I can only conclude that he has done so deliberately; which betrays a gross level of cynicism.

    Dr. Sandel also wishes that he could ban the word “incentivise” and replace it with other words such as deliberating, reasoning, and persuading. Firstly, that assumes that monetary incentivization, which is what he’s referring to, lacks deliberation, reason, and persuasion. He offers no evidence that this is so. Secondly, once again, he fails to mention what kind of deliberation, reasoning, and persuasion he wishes. Or does any of that matter so long as the deliberation, reasoning, and persuasion result in the implementation of Dr. Sandel’s views of morality?

    • July 22, 2013

      Alfredo Pina

      I agree with you. But you should read his books or see his lectures. He is quite clear on what he believes morality is.

      • December 31, 2013

        Bob Roberts

        One of the constant themes running through one of his books is that impoverished people are always coerced by offers to do some of the thing Mr Sandel objects to. He therefore implies that people in poverty are stripped of the ability to decide whether it is best to take the money and improve their financial situation, or to prevent the possible risks the transaction would incur, eg health. He therefore believes that it is immoral to allow people to make that choice, and that it is moral for an authority such as the government to prevent that choice from being made, on the advice of people such as himself, and that his morality should be universally applied to all, regardless of their own opinions on the matter.
        However, I don’t disagree with many of the other suggestions that he puts forward, but on issues that affect solely the participants in the transaction, they should be left to their own devices in my opinion.

  24. April 7, 2014

    tony yates

    Michael; I don’t think you have read many economics textbooks, because the ones I know don’t confuse efficiency with morality/social worth in the way that you suggest. This is a popular man on the street misconception of economics, and it’s a shame that you fuel it in your comment.

  25. April 20, 2014


    Not only in textbooks, but am also in everyday life, chính nó presents economics as a value-neutral science of human behavior. Increasingly, we accept this way of thinking and apply it to all manner of public policies and social relations. But the economistic view of the world is corrosive of Democratic life. It makes for an impoverished public discourse, and a Managerial, technocratic politics.It is a measure of the value of intellectual level and Economic development of the country.

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Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel
Michael Sandel is a professor at Harvard University and author of "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets" (Penguin) 

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