The Costs of Living isn't what you'd call light reading. Published in 1994, its subject could be broadly classified as the meaning of life. But the subtitle, "How Market Freedom Erodes the Best Things in Life," offers the constraint on the topic that prevents this book from being endless.
It's an enchanting but difficult read. Barry Schwartz, whose more recent Paradox of Choice garnered a New Yorker review and positive press for dealing with the same topics on the level of the individual, here demonstrates instead the powerlessness of the individual to stop the relentless advance of market forces into every domain of life. Moving from business to medicine to law to sports to love to education to democracy, Schawrtz shows how the things we purport to value most in life are now subject to market influence--and argues, persuasively, that they are far worse for it.
This is enchanting because Schwartz is a fantastic writer, good at using examples to make his points and capable of humor and serious concern in equal measure. The reading is made difficult by the fact that the book was written in 1994. Rather than the doomsday prophet that Schwartz surely seemed upon publication, he now appears oddly prescient about the continuing advances the market would make into all spheres of life if people did not band together to stop it. While he could not have anticipated the ways in which people's yearning for community in the face of these forces would be exploited by politicians willing to wield those communities' principles as marketable commodities--and how those politicians would use their resulting power to help the market forces advance ever faster--the ingredients of that recipe for disaster are all quite plain to the reader with benefit of knowledge of the ensuing decade.
Can we still turn things around? The task is undoubtedly even more difficult now than Schwartz suggested it would be ten years ago. But we ought to try, and Costs of Living still offers a good way to start constructing the framework by which we might begin to do so. Highly recommended.