Michael Sandel on the moral limits of markets:

These examples illustrate a broader point: some of the good things in life are degraded if turned into commodities. So to decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question—health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on. These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.

This is a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?


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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Looks interesting and looks like it overlaps a little in content with The Economics of Good and Evil. Have you read it? Well worth reading if you haven’t.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      Adam, haven’t read that one (as is true of many of the books in this genre). But you’re right: it does look interesting. I may pick it up and read them alongside each other.


  2. It’s dismaying that society seems to view things in terms of cost and how things can be used or exploited, rather than in terms of the properties those things possess that are remarkable, in and of themselves. (Not that the usefulness of something can’t be remarkable also.) It’s dismaying to find myself losing sight of those Creator-reflecting properties of the hundreds of commodities I utilize every day in my busy, hectic life… C. S. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” helps me back on track. One of the reasons I homeschool my kids is to cultivate (preserve, actually) an appreciation for the wonder of things, to instill deep within them an understanding of those things’ intrinsic (dare I say, sacred) worth.


    1. Matthew Lee Anderson March 20, 2012 at 10:01 am

      Well put, Bonnie. Really well put.


  3. […] post about the limits of markets and the public discourse (or lack thereof) about them. (H/T) […]


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