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Culture & Religion

How the ‘Free Market’ Is Consuming Our Values

Economics rests on unguarded assumptions that need to be examined, says author and Harvard professor Michael Sandel. He wants to revive a debate over the role of market forces. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Harvard professor and author Michael Sandel has written a book about the encroachment of economic thought into previously non-economic areas of life, such as education and health. Sandel gives the example of a Dallas school district that paid primary students two dollars for every book they read. The policy, according to Sandel, subtracted something essential from the educative experience, which is that learning should be taught as an end in itself. Sandel also points out that encouraging people to live healthier, such as by exercising or quitting smoking, is now often achieved by offering a financial incentive, i.e. a bribe.

What’s the Big Idea?

After the Cold War, says Sandel, people living in market capitalist societies came to see their way of life as sacrosanct. What resulted was an impoverishment of public debate over the role of market forces in our daily lives. As politics became less about big topics like justice and the meaning of the common good, and more about technocratic efficiency, many of our cultural values, such as deciding to marry or giving to charity, slowly came under the influence of the economist’s vocabulary. “Economics,” said Sandel, “rests on un-argued assumptions that need to be examined.”

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