Deirdre McCloskey Reviews Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy

Tyler Cowen notes that Sandel’s book makes it to several “best of the year” lists.  I haven’t read the entire book, but I find it, like much of Sandel’s work, very frustrating.  The reviews of the book here are interesting but to my mind don’t get to the heart of the matter, except for this one by Herbert Gintis:

By focusing on the marketability of particular things, Sandel misses the larger effect of an economy regulated by markets on the evolution of social morality. Movements for religious and lifestyle tolerance, gender equality, and democracy have flourished and triumphed in societies governed by market exchange, and nowhere else.

But McCloskey’s review, which has received some acclaim on the web, is devastating and gets at the heart of things.  Here is a taste:

The poor have benefited the most from capitalism. The sheer, first-act, unanalyzed equality that Sandel advocates would have killed the modern world and kept us in the appalling poverty of the human condition down to 1800. In fact in some countries it did, such as India after 1947, under Gandhi-plus-London-School-of-Economics egalitarianism, the “License Raj” and “the Hindu rate of growth,” as the Indians themselves bitterly described their communitarian economy. When I talk to friends who think like Sandel I worry that their dispositions will kill, quite unintentionally, the only chance for the world’s poor to achieve the scope for a full human life.

Sandel is not untutored. He knows such arguments, I imagine, and anyway they are not rocket science. Perhaps he tells them to the kids in the fifth week of his course. I hope so. But in the present book, the better to cast doubt on a neo-liberalism he detests, he has chosen not to reveal the other side, and to rely instead on a non-philosophical notion of schoolyard fairness as a First Principle. It is as though he has contempt for the common reader, and is unwilling to assume that she could adjudicate the serious arguments, pro and con, if they were presented.

For my earlier praise of McCloskey’s work, see here.

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