A review of Michael Sandel’s recent book “What Money Can’t Buy” by Tao Stein
Michael Sandel, a Professor at Harvard, is well-known in China for his course Justice, which has been released on the Internet, on television, and released as a popular book. In 2010, the Chinese version of Newsweek magazine ranked him as "the most influential foreign figure in China".
In this his most recent book, Sandel argues that money and markets are creeping into too many corners of life and corrupting society. He presents a long laundry list of examples. The examples aim to prove his general point that money and markets corrupt. Sandel claims that some things are destroyed or devalued when they’re traded.
Sandel comes across as a well-meaning and genial high school teacher. One guesses he’s never lived in a foreign culture. Well maybe France, but that doesn’t count. He’s probably never run a business either. He’s smart enough. He’s not going to surprise you with insights or a different perspective. On the other hand, he will patiently listen, carefully explain some existing basic ideas, and he’s genuinely interested in your ideas and perspective.
摘选一段简介文字：From the introduction:
“The reach of markets and market-oriented thinking, into aspects of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms is one of the most significant developments of our time.”
“When we think of the morality of markets we think first of Wall Street banks and their reckless misdeeds, of hedge funds and bailouts, and regulatory reform.”
In this book, Sandel comes across as a bit crotchety and, though he claims otherwise, like many of his political stripe he’s fundamentally pessimistic about human nature. He believes that markets and money need to be tightly controlled because they will corrupt society and triumph over love. Are markets and money really more powerful than love? Are the best parts of human nature really that delicate and in need of careful protection?
Let’s take a step back.
排队 / The queue
Sandel begins with a discussion of the queue. For him, the queue is an idealized representation of equality. Sandel believes that the queue is both an egalitarian way of allocating things and fosters a sense of equality and fairness within society.
For Sandel, today’s society is getting worse and less egalitarian as markets replace queues. He quotes a 2002 Slate article:
“主题公园里人人平等，每一个度假的家庭都要以民主的方式排队，但这种日子已经一去不复返了。”（作者Chris Mohney 。该文在2002年发表在Slate上。）
“Gone are the days when the theme-park queue was the great equalizer where every vacationing family waited its turn in democratic fashion.” — Chris Mohney, Slate, 2002
Are queues really egalitarian, and do they really foster a sense of equality?
People line up for all kinds of things. The British call this queueing and the Americans just call it lining up. Markets and queues are two different ways of allocating things. In a queue, the thing goes to the first person in line. In a market it goes to the person willing to pay the most. On the surface, a market seems better for both the seller and the buyer. The seller gets the most they can and the thing goes first to the buyer willing to pay the most. Why might queues be better?
对桑德尔来说，排队的方式更好，原因如下： For Sandel, queues can be better than markets because:
排队创建的是平等的道德。 Queues foster an egalitarian ethic
市场使东西最终分配给付费最多的人，而不是最重视它的人。 A market means the thing goes to the person willing to pay the most, not necessarily the person that values it the most
市场会毁坏一些事情的本质。The nature of some things can be destroyed by a market
Of these, I don’t really agree with the first claim. The second and third are legitimate concerns, but it’s not clear that queues solve those two problems any better than markets. Queues may in fact just be worse.
Sandel surveys American life and finds places where what used to be a regular queue has been replaced with a priority queue. Now, people can pay to go into a faster queue or skip the queue altogether. His examples include:
游乐园：现在，人们额外付费后，就不需在普通的队里排队，而能更快地使用游乐设施。The amusement park. Now people can pay extra to bypass the regular queue and get on the rides faster.
航空公司客户服务：现在，人们可以付费享受更快速的客户服务。航空公司对常客也设有快速登机服务。 Airline customer service. Now people can pay for faster customer service. The airlines themselves may route frequent customers to faster queues.
医疗服务：人们付费后，就能选用更快捷优秀的医生，或享受更迅速优质的医疗服务。Medical care. People can pay for faster or better doctor or medical service.
For Sandel, the queue is more egalitarian because it differentiates only based on who got there first, not on wealth or anything else. He ends his “Jumping the queue” chapter with a section titled “The Ethic of the queue”. There he says the following:
“Markets and queues — paying and waiting — are two different ways of allocating things, and each is appropriate to different activities. The ethic of the queue, “First come, first served,” has an egalitarian appeal. It bids us to ignore privilege, power, and deep pockets — at least for certain purposes. “Wait your turn,” we were admonished as children, “Don’t cut in line.””
排队真的可以培养出平等的思想吗？ Do queues really foster egalitarianism?
How much does standing in line together really foster egalitarianism? When I stand in line for the subway or at the bank nobody talks to each other. That’s as true in Canada and the US as it is in China. Today in lines all over the world people read or play on their cell phones to kill time. Ten or 20 years ago people just did different things to kill time. They read the newspaper or a book. Does putting everybody into something uncomfortable that nobody actually enjoys really foster a sense of egalitarianism? Does waiting in line for bread really foster a healthy sense of community and egalitarianism?
桑德尔认为，人们会羡慕和嫉妒他人。Sandel assumes people are envious and jealous.
The idea that queues foster egalitarianism is based on a pessimistic notion of human nature. It’s based on the notion that people are envious and jealous when they see others getting something they want. I can’t afford an Audi R8. When I see someone else driving one am I envious and jealous? Or do I instead think, wow, that’s awesome, I’m so happy that person was able to get that vehicle. In a healthy society people feel the latter.They are happy when they see others doing well and realizing their dreams, whatever those dreams are. Envy and jealousy is an immoral foundation for egalitarianism.
Additionally, queues are just annoying places to be. Nobody likes to wait in line. There are more meaningful and positive ways to foster egalitarianism within a society. Instead of using queues and assuming that people are envious and jealous maybe let’s look at the things we all share; culture, art, and literature. Those are meaningful and positive places for us to build our values, not killing time together in queues afraid to do otherwise because that would trigger envy.
Envy and jealousy arise in a society when people feel that they are playing an unfair game. The solution here is to make society more fair. That won’t be achieved by allocating by queue, but rather making sure that everyone has a good chance to be successful. Poor children should be given good education. Regulations should not favor people with family connections. Markets can foster equality by making the game more fair and open to all.
当然，还会有另一个问题： Then of course there’s the other question:
排队真的就能体现平等吗？Are queues really egalitarian?
Does “first-come, first-served” really allocate in an egalitarian way? Sandel seems to believe that queues allocate randomly and they therefore treat everyone equally. A sort of random allocation may be true for a bus stop or something of low value with a short wait. For something of higher value with a longer wait, is “first-come, first-served” really blind to wealth or other privilege? Who can afford to take a morning off killing time waiting in a queue? Probably not blue collar shift workers. Money and wealth will help people get up earlier and wait longer in queues. If they can’t do it they can hire someone to queue on their behalf. If the tickets aren’t transferable then they can do it themselves and hire someone to take care of their other responsibilities. Wealth will help you get to the front of the queue. The egalitarianism of first-come, first-served is an illusion.
谁需要，谁就获得。To those by need.
Some have said, things should be given not to the people that are willing to pay the most, but rather to the people that need or value them the most.
How do you measure how much somebody needs or values something? In some extreme cases the comparison is obvious. For example, a starving person will value a hamburger more than a well-fed person that just finished a big lunch. A diabetic will value insulin more than a non-diabetic. However, the vast majority of comparisons are not so easy. Given two middle-class teenagers, who values an iPhone more? The one that screams and cries for it the most? This is just allocation by acting talent.
The idea of giving something to the person that needs it most leaves out one very important person: the person who created or wants to sell the thing. All the stuff we need to live does not come from some magic rich person in the sky. It comes from other people working hard who are also just scraping to get by. Why should these people lose out and not take the highest bid? The highest bidder may not be the person that values the thing most, but one thing’s for sure: the highest bid is the best bid for the seller. Just look at a hard-working grocer or taxi driver. They’re hard-working folks selling stuff and just getting by. Academics need to think about producers as people too.
Sandel also makes a basic and tragically common economic mistake. He assumes production is a fixed pie — that someone paying for a faster queue is taking something away from someone waiting in line. This is not how an economy works. Consider the airline customer service example. The number of customer service agents is not fixed. The airline can train and hire more agents. People paying for faster service even means the company will have more money to hire skilled agents and pay those agents more. One person paying for faster service does not necessarily mean someone else’s service worsens. Income and training from the paid queue might even subsidize and improve service quality for the unpaid queue.
Queues do not allocate the good to the person that wants it the most. They also don’t allocate the good to the person that’s willing to pay the most. They’re bad for both the producer and the consumer. Improving equality and helping the poor are important. But there are much better ways for us to help the poor and needy in society than use queues. Markets are better than queues in every way. The only place to use queues is when it’s just more convenient and natural and there's no room for the overhead of a market — like lining up to get on the bus.
We will continue this review.
There is more to say.