What money can’t buy

A recent post on this blog referred to what sounds a fascinating new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits Of Markets, by Michael Sandel. The Guardian also recently featured an extract from this book.

As the earlier blog post discussed, our lives are now dominated by markets. Economists typically believe markets are the best way to allocate resources as, if the market mechanism works correctly, the resulting equilibrium maximizes economic welfare as measured by the sum of consumer and producer surplus. In particular, all consumers that are willing to pay a price above the market price are able to buy the product.

Fundamental to the measurement of consumer welfare is the notion that consumers will be prepared to buy a product as long as their willingness to pay exceeds the price. It therefore follows that consumers are more likely to buy the product as the price falls and, if they do so, gain increasing surplus. However, the extract from Michael Sandel’s book provides a number of interesting examples which suggest that in some situations this might not be the case.

One example concerns the storage of nuclear waste in Switzerland. When surveyed, 51% of the residents of the small Swiss village of Wolfenschiessen, said that they would be prepared to accept the waste being stored nearby. However, somewhat surprisingly, this figure fell to 25% when the residents were told that they would be compensated for the inconvenience. Furthermore, the figure remained at this low level even when the proposed compensation was increased to over £5000 per person.

Sandel argues that this is because, once compensation is introduced, financial incentives crowd out public spirit. He suggests that:

putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them.

For economists, this potentially has important implications for how we evaluate market outcomes and our belief that the market equilibrium is always the optimal outcome. Furthermore, it suggests that in some circumstances allowing the market mechanism to allocate resources may not be the ideal solution.


What money can’t buy – review The Guardian, John Lanchester (17/05/12)
Michael Sandel: ‘We need to reason about how to value our bodies, human dignity, teaching and learning’ The Guardian, Decca Aitkenhead (27/5/12)
We must decide on the way we want to live now London Evening Standard, Matthew d’Ancona (23/05/12)


  1. How is consumer surplus calculated?
  2. How does the market mechanism allocate resources?
  3. How would you explain the responses of the residents in the Swiss village?
  4. Do you think the Swiss residents would respond in the same way if the compensation offered was increased even further?
  5. What type of products and services do you think might be less well suited to being provided by markets?