Have We Become a Market-Based Society?

I subscribe to daily TED Talks, and I am so glad I do that because each day, a new and often provocative talk provided by a contemporary  thought leader lands in my e-mail box, and as I listen, I learn new things or I am challenged to think about commonplace things in a new way. This is how I learned about Brene Brown, for example. I had heard her talk on vulnerability before she was ever a guest on Oprah or started on her journey as a teacher and leader in Oprah’s  Super Soul Sunday series. Just as an aside, Dr. Brown’s talk has been so popular that if you visit the TED Talks website, hers is listed as one of the top 11 classic talks

Yesterday’s talk was by Michael Sandel, a political philosopher who teaches at Harvard. I was unaware of Dr. Sandel until yesterday, but I am certain that I am going to be learning more about him and his philosophy in the coming days and weeks. I just ordered his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Money.

What I appreciated about Dr. Sandel’s talk was that it validated my own thinking about the misguided notion that the free market is the answer to all questions, particularly questions that impact the social good. Public safety and transportation, for example, are offered as part of our general infrastructure for the good of everyone. So is public education, but I have long been concerned about the fact that a growing number of people seem to think that the free market is the end all and be all of everything and that government has no place in providing for the general good of the public. I don’t happen to buy that, and for over a decade, I have been deeply worried about the fact that more and more business leaders are looking to take over public education and make it a profitable private enterprise, diminishing the role of the public at large or dismissing completely the idea that public education is a basic civil right that should be accorded to every single child regardless of race, gender, or economic status as it does so.

I would urge you to take the 15 minutes or so and listen to Dr. Sandel’s talk about his concern with regard to our moving from a market economy toward a market society. He says that the problem of becoming a predominantly market society is that it will only exacerbate the sense of inequality. My own commentary on that thought is that the sense of inequality is already emerging as the gap between the rich and the poor becomes ever more unbreachable. The middle class is shrinking, and more and more people are becoming members of the class of the working poor.

Dr. Sandel also talked about how some groups are using market based principles to impact social goods and practices, and a specific example was how market-based practices were being used in education right now. He mentioned that some school divisions have experimented with paying students for making good grades, and in one experiment, 8-year-olds were paid $2.00 a book for every book he/she read. The results of these social experiments were mixed. The 8-year-olds read more books, but they read shorter books, and the larger looming question is whether or not they will become lifelong readers and learners if they have been sent the message that reading is “piece work” instead of something that needs to be appreciated as an intrinsic value. The same concern arises out of paying students for good grades. Does it teach children that everything can be monetized? Do we do anything anymore for the sheer love and enjoyment of doing it, or do we need to be paid? Where does it stop?

Dr. Sandel has no clear cut answers to offer in his talk, but he does raise some very important questions, I think, and he offers that we need to have a public debate about this new direction that we seem to have taken without any such conversation.

I found his talk to be thoughtful, insightful, and his ideas compelling. I urge you to take a few minutes to listen and then to reflect on his comments. He has articulated my own deep and abiding concerns, and he has stated them more clearly than I can.