Is Everything for Sale?

Harvard philosopher says increasing marketization erodes civic society; do skyboxes undermine democracy?

Harvard professor asks, Harvard professor asks, "Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there certain moral and civic goods that money cannot buy?"

Financial advisors follow changing markets, but do they perceive how markets are changing our society? That was the theme of a talk given at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual summer rite for thinking people that featured among others Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of the new book "What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets."

Sandel, best known for the popularity of his “Justice” course at Harvard which has been televised and also made available online, spoke to attendees at the Rocky Mountain festival which ended Tuesday of a bygone era in the 1960s when CEOs and mailroom clerks sat side by side at baseball games. Rich and poor alike “ate the same soggy hot dogs and drank the same stale beer,” Sandel said.

But since the advent of skyboxes, which started in the 1980s and have spread in the decades that followed, going to a sports game is no longer the “class-mixing” experience it once was.

“Those who can afford it can sit in air-conditioned comfort high above the field behind Plexiglas. And it’s no longer true that everyone waits in the same long lines for the restroom and […] gets wet when it rains,” Sandel said.

The Harvard professor, who says skyboxes are not necessarily immoral and who admits to having enjoyed games from behind Plexigas himself, says the class-segregated entertainment dome is a "metaphor for a tendency playing itself out in American life as a whole."

That trend is the marketization of more and more areas of life, thereby diminishing the quantity and quality of encounters between people from different walks of life.

“We live and work and shop and play in different places. We send our children to different schools. And when our country goes to war, we fight those wars with other people’s children,” Sandel said, adding that this trend reduces the satisfaction of skybox inhabitants as well.

Reflecting on U.S. civic life a few days before the Fourth of July (Sandel spoke on Saturday), the Harvard professor said, “Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life.”

Ordinary encounters between people from different social backgrounds is “how we learn to negotiate our differences, and this is how we come to care for the common good,” he added.

Sandel, whose most recent book, "What Money Can’t Buy," was published in April, concluded:

“The question of markets in the end is not mainly a question about economics. It’s a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale, or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”

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