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Morals in the marketplace

13 June 2012

In his latest book, the moral philosopher Michael Sandel has turned his attention to the market. He talked to Nick Spencer



THE day before I meet Michael Sandel, the news has broken that people had been selling their Olympic torches on eBay. The flame had barely been in Britain for a day when some of those who had been nominated to carry it on its journey were found selling the sacred object. It could almost have been a publicity stunt to promote Professor Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The moral limits of markets.

Does it matter that people who had been honoured by the com­munity for their contribution to it had chosen to sell the symbol of that honour? And does the fact that those who have done so say that they are giving the proceeds to charity make any difference?


Professor Sandel was unaware of the story, and takes a minute to take it in. “The torch is being commodi­fied, either way,” he says. “But it makes a difference if it is for charit­able purposes.”


Most people might follow him, simply by instinct. We may feel that there is something grubby about selling an Olympic torch, even if the stain is cleaned up a little by the prospect of the profits going to charity.


What we might find more dif­ficult is turning that feeling into reason, and articulating why it is wrong. Professor Sandel does not have that difficulty, and it is this that makes him one of the world’s leading — and certainly the most famous — living moral philo­sophers.


“What gives the Olympic torch its meaning is a public event, a public celebration, and if the purpose of the sale is to promote public pur­poses, that’s more in line with the meaning of the torch itself, rather than for personal gain.”


This idea goes to the heart of his latest book. And it is the reason why he has come to the UK for a few hectic days from Har­vard, where he is Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Gov­ernment.


HIS latest book builds on his previous bestseller, Justice; his hugely popular course in moral reasoning at Harvard; and his widely applauded 2009 Reith Lectures on “A New Citizenship”. It begins from the basis that we have moved from having a market economy to being a market society. The market has invaded areas that have historically been immune to its charms.


As a result of this, Santa Ana, California, sells cell-upgrades to prisoners; under-achieving children are paid to read books in Dallas, Texas; the company linestanding.com hires people to queue on behalf of those who want to lobby Congress; and Air New Zealand recently paid punters to shave their heads, and sport temporary tattoos, to adver-tise the airline. Everything has its price.


Well, not quite everything. “Even in our market-driven societies, we do ban certain mutually advan­tageous trades. We don’t allow a free market in votes . . . we don’t allow a market in kidneys, or in blood.” There are limits to what we buy and sell.


If some of the economists he quotes in his book were to have their way, however, there would be far fewer limits. What Money Can’t Buy tells of economists and politicians who have suggested the following: charging admission to refugees fleeing persecution; allow­ing people to exceed the state speed-limit for a fee; and creating a market in “procreation licences” as a way of dealing with over­population.


Such ideas may seem to be far-fetched to us today, but the idea of a viatical settlement — buying the life insurance from a terminally ill AIDS patient, and then profiting from his or her early death — would have seemed far-fetched a generation ago, and is today a legitimate, multi-billion dollar industry. What has changed?


THERE were important changes within economics, Professor Sandel says. In particular, there was “the emergence of the idea that economics is not only about the organisation of pro­ductive activity, [but that] it is a way of understanding and explain­ing all of human behaviour, all of human life”.


This is significant enough in its own right, but, when combined with the momentous collapse of Communism, this became epochal. “At the end of the Cold War, we drew the wrong lesson,” he says.


“We said capitalism is the only system left standing, but we read into that market triumphalism — the idea that markets are the primary in­strument for achieving public good.”


This is a persuasive explanation, but I want to know whether it is the whole truth. I suggest to him that this might simply be what happens when societies get richer, and more plural. No longer able or willing to come together in informal bonds of mutual reciprocity, we negotiate our common life through legal contract and market exchange — the curse of a “developed” society.


Professor Sandel disagrees. There is nothing inevitable about the ex­tent of our commodification of life, he says. “Market triumphalism is not correlated with any particular level of economic wealth or eco­nomic development. The US and Europe had achieved a very high level of economic development before this market-triumphalist idea set in.”


Even so, the market triumphalism of the past two decades is not simply an economic idea, propagated by ideologically driven politicians. “It has a deeper appeal than a merely economic one,” he says. “It offers a certain ideal of freedom . . . a non-judgemental idea of freedom . . . where we can place the value we want on the goods we exchange.”


PROFESSOR Sandel’s hostility towards this is clear. “I think it’s a flawed idea of freedom, and a mistaken notion of value.”


But it is a carefully reasoned hostil­ity, which is prepared to acknow­ledge the strengths and successes of the market system. “All things con­sidered, we [may have to] let markets do their work [in certain areas], even though we recognise that we are paying a certain moral cost.”


To illustrate this, he uses the example from his book of the South African government, which issues permits to hunt endangered black rhinos. On the face of it, this sounds barbaric: almost like hanging a “For Sale” or “For Slaughter” sign round the neck of a magnificent and rare wild animal.


But the reality is different. The animals were being poached to extinction. The South African government sells a limited number of hunting permits, at a prohib­itively expensive cost, and then ploughs the money into protecting the rest. As a result, poaching has diminished, and rhino numbers have bounced back. Commodifying, it appears, can work.


It is to Professor Sandel’s credit that he includes examples such as this in his book. And he smiles and nods vigorously when I mention it. His is no anti-market polemic or crusade. What he wants, he tells me, is a public debate about the proper place of the market. He wants, in effect, to open people’s eyes.


“When we make devil’s bargains, it’s important to retain an awareness that that’s what we’re doing — because that holds open the pos­sibility of revisiting the devil’s bargain at a time when we are in a position to.”


IF PROFESSOR Sandel wants a debate, it looks as if he may get one. He was a little lacklustre in our conversation because his schedule had been filled to bursting with interviews, debates, and public events. That, of course, comes with the territory of pub­lishing a new book (at least for some authors), but it is different in his case.


The day before we met began for him with Radio 4’s Start the Week, with Andrew Marr, and ended with a well-attended public debate in Oxford, also chaired by Mr Marr. After we parted, he was whisked away to tackle John Redwood MP on the TV programme Daily Politics, on BBC2. The next evening he stood before a packed audience in St Paul’s Cathedral, in discussion with lead­ing economists (News, 1 June). And, sandwiched in between such high-profile appearances, he was passed from one broadsheet interview to another.


Much of this is due to Professor Sandel himself. He is unfailingly courteous, thoughtful, well-reasoned, and accessible, in a dis­cipline not always famed for such virtues. But much is also due to the subject that he is talking about. There is undoubtedly a widespread public unease with the market-isation of life.


But there is also a pleasure (and pride) taken in the other side of the market coin, the freedom and non-judgementalism (read: moral relativism) that markets afford us. We cannot agree on the value of things — at least, not in any sub­stantive way; so each does his or her own thing, placing his or her own value on goods and services through market exchange.


I put it to Professor Sandel that he was being a little optimistic that we actually want — still less will be able to achieve — discussion and resolution about the true value of things. This elicits his one terse response of the interview, albeit delivered with characteristic charm: “We can’t know until we try.”


BUT trying, he recognises, is risky. Liberal political philo­sophy has arguably been trying to evict strongly held and deep-rooted personal convictions, usually religious ones, from public debate for decades, apparently for fear that they will destabilise the debate and preclude rather than enable consensus.


It is not a position that Professor Sandel shares. He recognises that “the only way to arrive at a shared normative framework is to try to work it out through sometimes noisy, messy public deliberation.” But, he says, the alternative to open debate “is that markets will provide the answers for us”, and that is clearly not an alternative that he welcomes. Moreover, he is clearly, if quietly, optimistic about what de­bate can achieve. “One never knows in advance which areas of agree­ments, shared norms, will emerge.”


He does not see religious opinion as part of the problem in all this. He wants to include religious voices in public debates of this nature. More im­portantly, he wants to include them as religious voices rather than in­sist that they talk a kind of secular Esperanto. “I don’t agree that public reason should consist of secular reasons only.”


This is a controversial position in political philosophical circles, and one for which he has been criticised, but he is insistent that it is right. “The moral traditions deriving from faith should shed light on the dilemmas that we confront,” he tells me. And, while there are undoubt­edly crass, inaccessible, and divisive religious contributions to public debate, such unhelpful voices are not limited to the faith sector. “No one has the monopoly on dogma. . . There are dogmatists that come from religious traditions, and secular traditions.”


As we part, Professor Sandel says: “Mainly, I’m trying to connect philosophy to public discourse, to engage with questions that citizens care about.” It is a typically un­assuming comment from an unassuming man. That is indeed what he is doing. But, simply by doing that, Professor Sandel is encouraging us to look afresh at everything we have taken for granted for too long.


What Money Can’t Buy: The moral limits of market by Michael Sandel, is published by Allen Lane at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-846-14471-4.



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