Authors of the intellectual stature of the Skidelskys and the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel (What Money Can't Buy, Allen Lane, £20) don't mean to be cynical. They are sincerely concerned about our moral health and therefore want us to pause and think. What is the sense of life? What do we really cherish in life? How do we want to use our precious time here on Earth? And why? Hasn't the market done its job, haven't we grown wealthy enough by now? They worry that the market may be the economic incarnation of personal liberty, but that it inevitably leads to severe social injustice. Isn't that too heavy a sacrifice? The market teaches people always to strive for more, to think permanently in terms of supply and demand, to attach a price to everything. But there are things that money just shouldn't buy. They complain that the market corrupts our souls, and without noticing we have been turned into its slaves. But salvation is near if only we heed the call and consider the stick to be a carrot.
The common denominator of these authors who wrap their message in what is supposed to be merely a moderately anti-capitalist disguise is a quasi-religious language and pattern of thought. They walk the line between renunciation and redemption with great ease: he who giveth up on wealth shall find plenty. Renounce and thou shalt win paradise. Ascetism out of hedonism — now if that isn't an interesting twist, what is?
Perhaps the economic paradigm has indeed accustomed us too much to measurement by money. Think about the university reforms everywhere in Europe demanding that courses be faster and more efficient, in the interest of immediate employability. Employers now find that graduates lack maturity. The reason is that some things are difficult to measure in monetary terms and thus escape our attention, such as the lessons for life that students may learn at college, beyond the income flows that will hopefully ensue one day. Sandel also has a point when he warns that we shouldn't use monetary incentives without taking secondary effects into consideration. If you pay a child to read a book, he may read the book all right, but he will always view reading as a chore. But this example doesn't prove, as Sandel seems to believe, that economic thinking in itself is bad and incentives are wrong. They just shouldn't be used in a short-sighted way. Economic thinking has two components, and one of them is thinking. Part of the necessary thinking might even imply that we be aware of the limits of the market, as Sandel calls them: auctioning off voting rights, for example, would demean the idea of the citizen. True. Any doubts?
At any rate, it does seem a good idea to talk about values again. Economics has too long pretended to be a positive science, which it cannot be. Historically, it is an offspring of philosophy and ethics. It doesn't abstain and it doesn't need to abstain from normative judgment. In the case of Robert Skidelsky, the distinguished Keynes scholar, the master himself again allows him to build the bridge: after all, Keynes was a moralist, wasn't he? Well, in the long run, we probably all are. With the valuable help of his son, Skidelsky reveals the philosophical underpinnings of his own thinking and courageously puts them up for discussion. In this new alliance between scholars in economics and philosophy, which seems to be a second-round effect of the reaction to the global crisis, a new light is shed on economic policy recommendations. It makes it easier to see where the pure economic reasoning in an argument may be correct but the philosophical premises prove untenable.
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