What Isn’t for Sale? is an article by Professor Michael Sandel that appeared in The Atlantic over the weekend. It’s an excellent companion piece to my Washington Post column today, Bribing students: Another ‘magical solution’ that doesn’t work. In fact, he refers to the same Dallas study that I cite about paying students to read books.

I would strongly recommend reading his article (it’s not that long). Here are a few excerpts:

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t…..

….we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction.

…. 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.

…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?

And, since I began this post talking about my article in today’s Washington Post, I refer to the use of “magical solutions” that end up making things worse as a hallmark of many school reform efforts, and use Disney’s animated classic “Fantasia” as a metaphor (allegory?). Here’s the scene from the movie I write about: