Weekly Book Review: What Money Can’t Buy

 January 1, 1970


What Money Can’t Buy : The Moral Limits of Markets

Michael J. Sandel – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2012 – 244pp. – $29.95


Early this week I knew exactly five things about Harvard University.


  1. 1.With information provided courtesy of Ben Afflect , Matt Damon and a Wikipedia search I knew that it was located in Cambridge Massachusetts.
  2. 2.Political propaganda of 2004 taught me that Barack Obama studied law there.
  3. 3.Dallas Willard informed me in Divine Conspiracy that at Harvard questions of right and wrong, morality and immorality are strictly forbidden.
  4. 4.In addition to enticing and lurid information about the comings and goings of the University, through Ben Mezrichs Accidental Billionaires I learnt that Facebook originated on its campus.
  5. 5.A little commonsense told me that they would never accept me as a student.


Michael Sandel who Vanity Fair describes as “soft-spoken (professor whose) offhand sentences emerge as if flawlessly etched in crystal” poked a hole in the idea that at Harvard questions of right and wrong cannot be asked. Better still, he obliterates the notion with his lectures in Harvard’s Sanders Theater filling to the limits of the fire code on just that subject and thanks to Apple University and this year’s publication of What Money Can’t Buy we can all gain entrance into the hallowed hall. The back and forth dialogue that Sandel has with students is lost in the print form however the reader is still able to wrestle alongside the professor and future presidents with questions like; “should we pay children to read books or to get good grades” (interesting those who -like me- got a little too comfortable with Freakonomics are asked to take another look) , “should we allow corporations to pay for the right to pollute the atmosphere” , “Is it ethical to pay people to test new drugs or to donate their organs?”, “What about hiring mercenaries to fight our wars?” , “should we selling citizenship to immigrants willing to pay?” Even if you aren’t an immigrant, disgruntled with the way wars are currently being fought, desperate for extra cash, Albertan or simply desperate to get your child to read, these are questions that you need to engage with outside of the who-yells-the-loudest partisan speech and debates of politicians and their respective media outlets.


Except for Johnny Depp who joked from his yacht on the way to his private island; “money can’t buy you happiness but it can ferry you there” most people would say that money has it limits. Money shouldn’t be able to buy everything. Yet no matter how badly the economy and the systems that regulate them (or don’t) get hit, we continue to act as though it can. No matter how many times markets have been shorted, inflated, stimulated, spiked and tanked they still dominate every aspect of our lives in what Sandel calls “Market Triumphalism“. A line needs to be drawn somewhere.


What I found at first frustrating and then frustrating again is that in most of the issue Sandel is able to draw a clean distinction between the right and the wrong. It is as if the “grey” area that I seem to have taken permanent residence in isn’t even on his map.

With the Professor we find that ;

Option A : Gives you X

Option B: Gives you Y

And Option A is better because of A,B, and C.

To this tune Sandel can sound rather “preachy” at times and if that wasn’t frustration enough (Harvard teachers shouldn’t preach!) when I found myself working up the courage and objecting one of his points with; “Well you didn’t factor in thought D” only to read a little further to discover that, yes, he had taken it into account as well as option E, F, G, H etc.


The only saving grace is that my pitiful objections were held in the company of my dog in the backyard and not standing in front of a full lecture hall while being taped for millions of viewers on AppleU which leads to another drawback of the book which is that besides his gift of taking information from on high, his ability to share it below with his students in back and forth banter is remarkable and as mentioned before the dynamic that happens in his lecture hall is lost even though in reading his material it is apparent , through implicit and explicit comments, that his content has been shaped by the teaching experience. All is not lost as a consolation dynamic can be achieved if the book is read, as it should be, in a group. Book Club anyone?


One question I wish Sandel would have engaged would have been “What price should we place on education.” With his Harvard course titled “Justice” running as one of the most popular at Harvard I find his answer would tragically be “free to all” as those lectures are offered for free through Itunes. As a critic of open source material I would have liked Sandel , chief supporter of open source material, to explain why attaching a zero dollar figure to his Harvard course is acceptable. Maybe he would reply that he balances his free lectures in the hope they will; entice eager students to buy his book “Justice”, its accompanying reader also of the same name and show those who will never study at Harvard that those who are there now and will become the next Presidents of the United States of America are having to wrestle with questions of Right and Wrong. If so, it worked on me.