Michael Sandel is well known for his writings on political philosophy, and about a thousand Harvard undergraduates annually crowd into his course titled "Justice." In contemporary terms he is a liberal, though of a decidedly "communitarian" bent. His new book, What Money Can't Buy, offers a good occasion to examine his communitarian moral convictions and his resulting distaste for the market.
One cannot disagree with him about the need to remoralize the study of markets. We should know why we believe, morally speaking, that bread should be allocated by a market but children should not. It's not enough to simply sneer at these propositions—even economists must perform their philosophical due diligence. "Markets are not mere mechanisms," he wisely observes, but "embody certain norms." He is right that "[m]arket reasoning is incomplete without moral reasoning."
But the book does not perform the work it calls for. Sandel knows moral and political theory, yet his book is strangely shallow. He does not provide, as he promises early on, "a philosophical framework for thinking...through" the "role and reach of markets." Instead, he mounts a tendentious assault, often veiled as mere reporting of what "some people" say, against "market triumphalism," which he understands to be an unsophisticated and unprecedented drive to price everything. He does battle with the more easily defeated utilitarian economists (Judge Richard Posner, for example), but ignores the best that has been thought and written about the merits of a commercial, innovative society. (John Tomasi's new Free Market Fairness is one book Sandel could have profited from, among others.) Playing to his audience's least examined dispositions about what's fair and what's reprehensible, Sandel doesn't try to elevate the philosophical game of the people he lectures.