Writing in The Atlantic, philosopher Michael J. Sandel laments that “…we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale” and he attributes this mercenary state of affairs to “market triumphalism” and the diminishing role of government in providing public goods and regulating the economy. While I agree that there are many aspects of human relations that cannot or should not be evaluated only in terms of dollars and cents, I think Sandel makes two fundamental errors. The first is his assumption that the primacy of monetary values is a product only or even chiefly of the modern market society. When Marcus Didius Julianus purchased the position of Roman Emperor from the Praetorian Guard in 193, this was because the empire had come loose from its traditional bases of authority, not because the soldiers were advocates of an unregulated economy.
The second assumption, related to the first, is that government control and direction is the only alternative to a society based only on monetary exchange. But there are many limitations to the marketplace, including familism, interpersonal relations within communities, traditionalism, and religious beliefs. As the example from Roman history suggests, the situation “in which everything is up for sale” results more from the weakening of these normative restraints than from the shrinking of government activity. In fact, by replacing non-governmental institutions, government activities arguably promote impersonal exchange as the basis of human interaction.