The way we understand society has the power to change it, whether through debate, public policy, or the behavior of individual citizen-consumers. This is as true of our motives and values as it is of anything else.

The model most often assumed in current debates is one taken from traditional economics. But Michael Sandel has challenged this model in his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, and if Sandel is correct then this has huge implications for society.

The economic model – public spirit as a currency

The point of contention between Sandel and traditional economists lies in how they see public spirit as a motive for action. We’re talking here about public spirit as a feeling that motivates people to do good, a feeling that can be tapped into to drive better behavior, whether it’s participating in community projects, helping neighbors or picking your children up on time from school.

Traditional economists see public spirit as a finite resource, something that is spent and eventually exhausted through use. Other motivators can be added to it for a cumulative effect, creating ever stronger motives for action.

The implication of this is that if we want to see strong public spirit then we should avoid using it where possible. Financial motives should instead be added, saving this precious resource for later.

Sandel’s model – public spirit as a muscle

Sandel takes a very different view of public spirit. For him it is a muscle that grows when it is flexed and withers away if it goes unused. In this model, using public spirit to motivate people reinforces the value of that public spirit and makes it more likely to motivate them later. Substituting an economic motive does not preserve the precious pool of public spirit but instead destroys it, severing the association between these positive feelings and the desired action.

Sandel gives the example of a nursery in Israel, which relied on parents’ feelings of public spirit and appropriate behavior to motivate them to pick children up on time. When the nursery started fining them for not picking children up on time the act became linked with economic motives, and so the moral motive went away. Late pickups became more rather than less common.

Why does it matter?

This isn’t just a matter of theory – it has real life consequences. Sandel argues that recent attempts to put market motives into every area of public life are eroding feelings of public good, that if we want to restore them we need to make use of those feelings, rather than shying away from them.

A casual glance at the problem of inner city decay reinforces this view. Areas lacking in a sense of community and public spirit swiftly spiral down into crime and social collapse. Attempts at revival by drawing business into such areas may be doomed if all they bring is money.

Theory matters. The way we understand the world matters. And the first step in changing the world is making sure that our understanding is as correct as it can be. Sandel’s book provides a timely reminder of this.