Via Motherboard, Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel on our slide toward a market society:
In recent decades we’ve been in the grip of market faith, which says that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the public good. This assumption has gone largely unquestioned in the past 30 years. As a result from that we have drifted from being a market economy to being a market society.
A market economy is a valuable tool for organizing productive activity. A market society, on the other hand, is a place where everything is up for sale, in which money and market values begin to dominate every aspect of life. From family and personal relationships to health, education, civic life, and politics. We need to step back and ask some fundamental questions about what the role of money and markets should be.
Utilitarianism assumes that all good things in life can be translated into a single uniform currency or a measure of value, typically money. The danger of this way of thinking is that it flattens the moral discourse and it fails to account for moral and civic goods that simply can’t be translated into monetary terms.
For example, take friendship. Most people would agree that—even if one wants more friends—it wouldn’t help to buy some. We recognize that the money that would buy a friend would dissolve the good that we seek when we aspire to have friends. The reason we need to worry is because, when markets reach into spheres of life that are properly governed by non-market values, they undermine the values that make those relationships important and precious.
One severe danger of growing up in a thoroughly marketized society is that our identities as consumers crowd out our identities as citizens. If we think of ourselves only or primarily as consumers, then it becomes more and more difficult to demand a meaningful voice in shaping the collective destiny of society.
The idea that markets are natural forces rather than social institutions designed to serve certain purposes is mistaken. But it’s a deeply influential mistake. Markets are not ends in themselves and they are not forces of nature. What has happened in recent years is that we have forgotten that markets are tools.