Has the Free Market Gone Too Far?
Pushing the limits of what’s for sale
These days, too many things come at a price, argues Michael Sandel,
a political philosopher and Harvard professor. Market values have
metastasized through our society, he says, distorting debate about
issues as complex as health care and immigration and as seemingly
simple as the question “What do we value?”. In his recent book,
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Sandel
accuses businesses and the U.S. government of sacrificing values
such as justice and respect for human dignity in favor of utility. Inc. editor-at-large
Leigh Buchanan asked Sandel about when such tradeoffs cross the line and what he
thinks politicians should be discussing.
What are market values? How are they
intruding where they don’t belong?
They’re a way of valuing goods, based
on use. When we’re talking about televisions, toasters, and cars, market values
are appropriate. But when we’re talking
about personal relations or family,
market values may not be appropriate.
For example, even if I wanted more
friends, it wouldn’t work to try to buy
some. The money that would buy the
friend dissolves the good that makes
friendship valuable. We have drifted
from having a market economy to
becoming a market society. A market
economy is a valuable and effective
tool for organizing productive activity.
A market society is a place where almost
everything is up for sale.
product placement. Churches, fire
trucks, fire hydrants, police cruisers.
There’s advertising in jail cells. Talk
about a captive audience.
The Living Dead:
Good for Business
This July, more than 700 zombies
descended on Lakewood, Colorado, sending thousands of local
residents scurrying. This was no
movie set. It was an event hosted
by Reed Street Productions, a
Baltimore-based company that
puts on zombie-themed 5K races,
dubbed Run for Your Lives.
Co-founders Ryan Hogan and
Derrick Smith started the races
last year as a way to sell inventory
from Warwear, Hogan’s athletic-apparel company. They added
zombies to the mix, inspired by the
popularity of AMC’s The Walking
Dead. It appears to be a winning
The political parties generally
frame economic debates around
taxes and spending. What should
they be talking about?
The values that underlie their views
on taxing and spending. Beneath those
arguments are questions: What is the
relationship between individual rights
and the common good? What do we
owe one another as citizens? Those are
big philosophical issues, and they
aren’t just abstract ideas for scholars.
Is there an argument to be made that
the ceaseless pressure on companies
to innovate propels them into morally
Yes. Advertising is a very good example of this. The intense pressure to
capture human attention has pushed
it into morally questionable areas.
For example, many school districts
now are allowing advertising on
school buses, in the cafeterias, in classrooms. And the advertising companies promote this to potential clients,
saying you can gain access to a captive
market of teenagers without the usual
distractions. And it’s not just schools.
The fans that people use in churches
have ads on the back. They used to
be from funeral homes, but now it’s
corporations. So the congregation
sits fanning itself in one large wave of
What examples would you use to frame
such a debate?
Increasingly, we have relied on the
market to allocate military service.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, there were
more paid military contractors on the
ground than there were U.S. troops.
Yet we never had a public debate
about whether we wanted to outsource
the war to private companies.
Brains! A Boston runner had plenty of motivation.
What are the most extreme market
solutions you’ve seen proposed
One novel effort to raise funds for
local government was put forward by
a candidate in Nevada who proposed
allowing people to buy permits to
speed up to 90 miles an hour. The
state highway patrol concluded that it
would imperil public safety.
Did that candidate win?
combo: The company is on track to
hit $15 million in sales this year.
Runners pay about $80 to race
through an obstacle course that
includes mudslides, climbing
walls, and, of course, hordes of the
undead. It’s $25 to be a zombie—
Reed Street provides makeup and
costumes. The zombie slots usually fill up first. “One of our biggest
questions has been, ‘Holy crap!
How did we sell out of zombies so
quick?’” says Hogan. He plans to
raise the price to $35 next year.
Reed Street is organizing
zombie races in 13 cities this year
and expects to double that in 2013.
This month, the company is hosting a two-day event in Southern
California that Hogan expects will
draw up to 25,000 participants. “I
think people are fascinated with
the concept,” says Hogan. “Or they
just love zombies.” —Shane Kite
FROM LEFT: KIKU ADATTO; COUR TESY COMPAN Y