Work and Dignity   /   Fall 2012   /    Book Forum

Capitalism and Our Moral Imagination

Eugene McCarraher

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government (detail).

Michael Sandel has always been erudite, incisive, and impeccably civic-minded. Offended by the encroachment of money and “market thinking” on ever more spheres of our lives, Sandel seeks, in What Money Can’t Buy, to define “the moral limits of markets” and preserve the things we claim to cherish. To do this, he insists, we must “reason together, in public, about how to value the social goods we prize” [15]. But while his faith in reason and in his fellow citizens is inspiring, I am skeptical that such a “robust public discourse” is going to take place any time soon. It isn’t just that our political culture is a stew of snark, invective, melodrama, and vacuity. It’s that even Sandel’s conception of what is “reasonable” to say seems so cautious and narrow.

Sandel’s pages on economics and its grotesque account of human nature are lucid, penetrating, and far too respectful. At bottom he shares more with the economists than he realizes, and that points to the pervasive problem with his book: for all his forensic skill in demonstrating the unfairness wrought by “markets,” Sandel’s understanding of “markets” is essentially that of the economists he chastises.

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