Lessons learned from Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy

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Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets might sound like an unlikely source of inspiration for a fiction writer. It’s a book about the influence of market values as they intrude into every corner of our lives, a challenge to accepted truths on the subject. There are no exotic locations or exciting events as you would get reading a book on history or mythology. And yet, having finished it this morning, I’ve found that it’s given me much to work with when writing.

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The way we assign value

Often in books, especially those focused on action and adventure, objects and events are given much the same value by all involved. The Holy Grail is a thing of huge importance to all who encounter it because of its power. Not everyone might care about the core maguffin for the same reasons, but they value it in much the same way, and its value remains the same no matter their reasons for valuing it.

But something Sandel draws attention to is that the way we value objects changes their value. Once corporate boxes were put into football grounds they became less egalitarian places. High and low alike weren’t crammed together on the terraces, and the wealthy looked down on the masses from behind protective glass. People were attending who valued their status above the sport, and that changed the place.

The way we assign value changes our behaviour, and that can change our world.

Hidden ideologies

Sandel, like many other commentators, challenges the neutrality of certain assumptions. He argues that using market forces to assign services and goods changes those things. Modern economic assumptions aren’t the universal truths many treat them as – they are ideological assumptions.

Whether or not you agree with Sandel it gives you something interesting to ponder when creating a fictional world. What are the assumptions its inhabitants take for granted? What are the religious, social, political and economic ideas they never even mention because they are so fundamental to their lives? Taking that in new directions has potential for creating unusual fantasy and science fictional societies, like Iain M. Banks’s Culture.

The Dan Brown effect

There’s also an interesting lesson for those of us trying to work within creative industries. Sandel argues that placing a commercial value on something can squeeze out its other values in our minds. So a work of art with great merit might be far less successful than a mediocre one if the mediocre one is seen as easier route to profit and so pushed by big companies. This can warp our culture, and raises a challenge for both writers and readers in cutting through the business to put cultural value first.

Looking for the unexpected

As writers we need to be eclectic, to take lessons from all fields, to give our worlds depth. Sometimes that’s about basing a character on a real person or gaining inspiration from a painting. But sometimes it’s about reading books on economics.

So, any thoughts on this? Have any of you read books that became surprising sources of inspiration? Where have you got good ideas and new perspectives from? Leave a comment, let me know.


Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons

3 thoughts on “Lessons learned from Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy”

  1. Probably my most eclectic point of research was during a massage, when the masseuse explained in biological terms just what would happen to a body that lay still in an enchanted sleep for decades.

    I’ve read something similar to this recently (can’t remember where, and that’s going to bug me) which talked about being wary of your own innate cultural prejudices. Our language is stuffed full of them and we often don’t notice that we’re impacting our world building just by using words in the same way our own culture does. Gender is the easy and obvious one to spot here – things like ‘throw like a girl’ or swear words that put a negative emphasis on sex actually convey things that we might not mean, simply because we’re taught to think like that automatically.

    1. I love that massage example – that’s really doing your research!

      There seems to be a lot of discussion at the moment about our innate prejudices and how they’re reinforced through language. I think it may be that lessons from semiotics are filtering out into the mainstream, what was innovative a few decades ago now being applied all over the place, which can only be a good thing. Feminists and gay rights campaigners in particular are having to tackle this head on to make any progress. Now I wish I could think of more specific examples, ubt I’ve left my books at home…

      And if you remember what the example was you read then I’d be interested to read it.

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