Thought Leadership Exchange Recap: The Moral Limits of Markets

The Thought Leadership Exchange is an event series developed and hosted in partnership with Net Impact Atlanta. Its purpose it to spark contemplation and dialogue on private sector leadership issues that are relevant to our civic life.

On Tuesday, March 17, Net Impact Atlanta and the Center for Civic Innovation partnered to offer the first program in a new Thought Leadership Exchange series. The purpose of the series is to spark contemplation and dialogue on leadership issues that are relevant to our civic life.

At our event, we convened to discuss the themes of Harvard Kennedy School philosophy professor Michael J. Sandel’s bestselling book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

In What Money Can’t Buy, Sandel argues that the United States has moved in the last few generations from having a market economy (a desirable thing) to living in a market society, where market mechanisms dominate and crowd out other systems of value (an undesirable thing). Sandel’s examples of societal marketization include the sale of organs for transplant; for-profit outsourcing of militaries and prisons; bribing schoolchildren to learn; and the commercialization of public or semi-public spaces via advertisements and sponsorships.

Sandel argues that over-commercialization:

  • has a degrading influence on individual moral character;
  • encourages stratification of society based on willingness and ability to pay for goods and services; and
  • ultimately leads to social breakdown as people lose their sense of shared identity through shared experience.

He suggests a way forward that reintroduces the concepts of morality and non-market values into public discourse.

Our mid-career and young professional participants represented a range of corporate and civic institutions, including government agencies, corporate social responsibility/sustainability consultancies, global corporations, several startups, and the business schools at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Following introductions, we streamed Michael Sandel’s TED Talk, ‘Why We Shouldn’t Trust Markets With Our Civic Life’ and then divided into small groups to discuss three rounds of questions centered around themes from Sandel’s book: ‘Jumping the Queue’ and Incentives; Do Markets Crowd Out Morals?; and ‘Skyboxification.’ After 45 minutes, we regrouped as a whole to share insights and ‘ah-ha’ moments.

A number of themes and questions emerged during our discussion:

  • To what extent do we agree with Sandel’s assertion that the United States has moved in the last few generations from having a market economy to living in a market society, where market mechanisms inappropriately dominate and crowd out other systems of value?
  • Many of us feel conflicted about the idea of living in a market society.While markets allocate goods efficiently, not everyone can participate in markets to the degree that they would like. This may not be a problem when we’re talking about markets for yachts or diamond necklaces. But what about top-tier colleges, or simply decent elementary schools? Safe neighborhoods? An unpolluted environment?
  • Should something be commercialized just because there is a commercial market for it? While it’s difficult to build a consensus on which specific goods or services should be off-limits to marketization, our group agreed that if a public good is used in a commercial way, the monetary benefit should flow back to the public and should be weighed against other potential negative outcomes that may result from commercialization. Likewise, businesses that make special use of public goods may have special responsibility to assure that public benefit occurs.
  • What about times when markets address problems that civic response has failed to solve? A market economy provides a mechanism for good ideas to rise to the top and makes space for ingenuity and innovation. When is it appropriate to apply market mechanisms to values that are neglected in the absence of incentives?
  • Can marketization of previously non-market goods improve equity of access for some people in the short run? For example, buying into privilege: can commercialization of the trappings of privilege actually make privilege more accessible if those who were not born into it can now buy into it?
  • Many factors that contribute to social cohesion — culture, education, built environment design — are experienced differently based on what we pay for them. As we lose our shared experiences, we lose empathy for each other. What does reduced empathy mean for our ability to preserve our pluralistic democracy?
  • How can we revive our sense of shared experience? What policies should public institutions and corporations adopt to recognize non-market values alongside market influences? What language and listening mechanisms are missing that would help us have meaningful and active discussions on this topic?

Our evening concluded with convivial conversation and networking over refreshments. The Thought Leadership Exchange will reconvene in May, when we will discuss Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil by former BP junior executive Christine Bader.

The Thought Leadership Exchange series is open to the public. Sign up to receive an email notification from Net Impact Atlanta when the event registration goes live.

Want to host your own discussion on the moral limits of markets? Our event guide is available here. Let us know how it goes by tweeting @civicatlanta or @NetImpactATL.

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