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Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizenship - Markets and morals

Updated Monday, 8th June 2009

In the first of the 2009 Reith lectures, Michael Sandel asks, “What are the moral limits of markets?” and considers whether there are some things that money can’t, or shouldn’t, buy in Markets and Morals

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Much political debate in democratic societies involves the proper relation of government to markets. Some favour more regulation of markets, others less. But, in the wake of the financial crisis, we may see the emergence in our politics of a different, more fundamental question: what are the moral limits of markets? Lecture 1 takes up this question.

One of the most pervasive tendencies of our time is the expansion of markets and market-oriented reasoning into spheres of life once governed by non-market values. Think of for-profit prisons, schools, and hospitals; the outsourcing of war to private military contractors; the growing use of private security guards rather than public police officers; the global trade in kidneys and other body parts for transplantation; the use of tradable pollution permits to lower the cost of complying with environmental regulations; proposals to use tradable permits in the allocation of refugees.

How should we think about the use of markets in cases such as these? Suppose markets can produce greater efficiency in the allocation of these goods; are they nonetheless objectionable? If so, on what grounds? Are there some things that money can’t buy – or shouldn’t?

Lecture 1 offers a moral framework for thinking about these questions. And it suggests that a more vigorous and searching public debate about the moral limits of markets is an essential aspect of 'the new citizenship'.

First broadcast: Tuesday 23 Jun 2009 on BBC Radio 4

 

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