About halfway through Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The moral limits of markets, a phrase from the book’s introduction is still in my head:
The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is mostly overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content.
Now, before you start worrying Sandel is going down the Bill Bennett path of virtue, let me explain. Sandel is making the argument throughout this book that we’ve started to use the idea of the market and it’s cold economic understanding as a stand-in for thoughtful discourse and the raising of questions worthy of a people striving to be the best versions of themselves by asking why and whether we should act in certain ways.
We have become a market society, Sandel writes, rather than a market economy.
I’m only halfway through the book, which means I’m through the section where Sandel handily identifies the problem using examples from a variety of social landscapes, and I’m interested in his arguments of how we should act as I finish reading the book.
The thing that stands out here, and a piece Sandel highlights nicely early on, is the market language that has come to be commonplace in education. We can allow the market to play out as it will through various mechanisms of school choice. Schools might shutter and some companies may find ways to shorten the shoestrings they call budgets for the educating of children. But, is a free market the best way to ensure the provision of a public good? By listening to and acting on arguments based in economic thinking divorced from the moral imperative to enrich the thinking and actions of all our citizenry, are we endangering the future and losing any hope of closing the gaps we so often reference?
Sandel would argue we are (and I’d join him in that), but the mere need for such an argument should point to the idea that not everyone thinks this way and that perhaps some of them are setting policy by looking at education through an economic lens and not a humanist one.
To create the systems of education we need and to lean in to the hard work of understanding what our highest aspirations should be, we need a combination of both of these lenses in the same way any telescope finds and refines it’s view of what the eye cannot see beyond the horizon.
If we are to live in a marketplace, let it be one of ideas and discussions of our moral aspirations.