Allen Lane, £20

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, By Michael Sandel

Should you pay to jump the queue – or for a new kidney? It's hard to define where cash has no place.

Michael Sandel, the superstar Harvard moral philosopher, wants people to spend more time queuing. Well, he wants people not to spend money to avoid queuing, which amounts to the same thing. Except sometimes the money option is ethical. When a bus arrives at the stop, it should be first come, first served; but he agrees I should not be under an obligation to sell my house to the first buyer who arrives at the doorstep.

"There's no reason to assume that any single principle – queuing or paying – should determine the allocation of goods," he writes. In which case, practical moral philosophy needs to indicate which principle applies in which circumstances. Professor Sandel does not give an answer, although he is very clear that the market principle applies in far too many cases, and many readers will agree wholeheartedly.

Perhaps we can figure it out from his examples. He objects to some people being able to buy the right to board airlines faster than others; or to pay for better service from a call centre; to paying someone else to stand in a queue on your behalf; to reselling concert tickets at a higher price. He thinks children should not be paid for attaining good grades at school.

This entertaining and provocative book is full of examples of vulgar commercialisation, including US towns that have sold advertising space on police patrol cars, the Washington lobbyists who pay homeless people to queue to see a congressman, the sale of a forehead as advertising space, and the purchase of naming rights to New York subway stations by (among others) Barclays Bank. A lot of us will agree that there is far too much of this in modern life.

However, there are examples in this book of the expansion of markets in ways that many people, especially economists, would mostly regard as beneficial, but the author argues are degrading. Life insurance is one. Sandel describes it as a "wager on death". He shares, it seems, the opposition of religious authorities to life insurance before it became increasingly widespread from the mid-19th century.

There are certainly some commercial excesses in the life insurance market. These include so-called "dead peasants insurance", whereby corporations take out policies on the life of their employees, originally without their consent; and the investment index of "viatical" insurance policies, whereby the investor buys at a discount the insurance policies of people who are dying and trades them. Yet to put normal life insurance policies in the same category, even though they may create a theoretical incentive to murder, seems extreme.

Sandel is particularly opposed to the idea, attributed to economics, that all human relations are market relations. His opposition to market relations stems not from an argument about fairness (that rich people can afford more), or about blackmail (poor people are effectively forced to make unpalatable choices because they need the money). Instead, his argument is that introducing market choices into domains where civic values ought to prevail has a degrading and corrosive effect.

The fact that a market might lead to outcomes that improve welfare is irrelevant to the over-riding importance of civic virtue, he argues. Thus a global scheme for a market in carbon dioxide is morally unacceptable, even if it reduces the level of emissions, because it does damage "to two norms: it entrenches an instrumental attitude toward nature; and it undermines the spirit of shared sacrifice that may be necessary to create a global environmental ethic."

I would rather see an effective scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but then I'm an economist. Economics is firmly grounded in utilitarian ethics, which can conflict with Sandel'smoral principle of virtue for its own sake. So at some point he and an economist are bound to part ways in making ethical judgments.

However, he thinks economists are more ideological than is the case (for the most part). For example, the book cites a well-known example of the use of a financial incentive proving counter-productive: a nursery that introduced a fine for parents who picked up their child late found that it increased lateness. Similarly, offering pupils payments to improve their grades does not always have the desired result.

A jobbing economist is not philosophically challenged by evidence that a financial incentive does not work, however. She will try to redesign the scheme with incentives that do work. The field of economics known as market design offers examples of market incentives whose outcomes are both effective and (I think) moral. A kidney-matching market created by economists in New England in 2004 has dramatically increased the number of kidney transplants, a result that surely outweighs any counter-argument against the commodification of body parts.

Economics does not deny the existence of limits to markets, or what are known as "repugnant" markets. On the contrary, market design tries to identify which reasons can account for the, often instinctive, moral repugnance in a specific case, and work around it. The good professor's insistence on a domain of civic values is certainly one principle for ruling out or limiting markets, and this explains why justice is supposed to be beyond purchase, and votes too, and why states insist on providing education for their citizens.

However, the generally accepted boundaries on markets vary, and the tide can flow both ways. There used to be a large market in humans, now banned in international law. The US prohibited the alcohol market in the 1920s. Short-selling of shares has sometimes been banned, sometimes not.

What Money Can't Buy will tap into a widespread unease about having to limit government and accept a larger private domain in this age of austerity; and about crass commercialisation when unemployment and inequality are too high. But it does not offer a clear guide to which markets are repugnant, and why.

We might agree that the new markets in financial indices of agricultural commodity prices, created by Goldman Sachs and others, are intolerable. For me, the reason is the utilitarian one that they are making very poor people go hungry.

But is it really morally repugnant for educational buildings to be named after rich donors? Sandel objects to a school naming its donated gym after ShopRite. Yet he, the Anne T and Robert M Bass Professor of Government, researches in Harvard's Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, named by a grieving but rich mother after a young Harvard student who died on the Titanic. Is the passage of time enough to disinfect the transaction?

He ends the book with a question: "Are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?" This is rhetorical. Of course the answer is, yes. But how do we know what they are?

Diane Coyle is the author of 'The Economics of Enough' (Princeton University Press), and runs the consultancy Enlightenment Economics

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker