Sandel discusses role money plays in society

Luke Rafferty | Design Editor

Michael Sandel, a Harvard University professor, speaks to a packed Maxwell Auditorium at 6 p.m. on Wednesday night. American society has been changing from a market economy to a market society, Sandel said, as monetary value is attached to more and more goods.

In American society, there are very few things money can’t buy.

Books have product placements. A prison in Santa Barbara, Calif., charges inmates $90 a night for a “cell upgrade.”

This mindset is just one example of the limited discussion about the relationship between money and morality in politics, Harvard University professor Michael Sandel told a packed Maxwell Auditorium on Wednesday night.

The event, which started at 6 p.m., had students and faculty, including Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor, filing into nearly all of the 200 seats available well before the start time.

In his lecture, Sandel spoke on the issues of changing markets, morals and civic life.

“The past three decades have seen a quiet revolution,” he said. “We’ve drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society.”

A market economy focuses on the buying and selling of necessary goods, but in a market society, goods not usually for sale can have monetary value, Sandel said.

He contrasted American priorities regarding money with those of Switzerland. He said Switzerland was trying to find a place to put its nuclear waste. One city was asked in a preliminary survey if it would agree to have the site put in its community and 51 percent of those surveyed said yes. The residents were then asked the same question but were told they would get an $8,000 reward for saying yes. Only 27 agreed.

This is just one example, Sandel said, of how the issues of political and public discourse regarding money are somewhat shallow, especially since money doesn’t necessarily drive everything.

“Sometimes,” he said, “introducing the cash incentive can crowd out or erode attitudes and values of a nonmarket economy.”

One of the problems he stressed was a ballooning inequality among the rich and poor. He said back when he was a child, the box seats at the ballpark cost $3.50 and the bleachers were only a dollar.

“It was a place where CEOs and mailroom clerks sat side by side,” he said. “When it rained, everyone got wet.”

But the addition of skyboxes to the stadium perpetuated a certain class distinction, making it so “it is no longer true that when it rains, everyone gets wet.”

Greg Clark, a graduate Ph.D. student in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said he appreciated Sandel’s unbiased approach.

Said Clark: “Unlike most prominent figures, he didn’t intentionally lead us to specific conclusions that were ideologically polarized.”


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