The day before I meet Michael Sandel, news breaks that people have been flogging their Olympic Torches on eBay. The flame had barely been in Britain for a day when some of those who had been successfully nominated to carry it on its journey were found selling the sacred object on–line. It seems too good to be true, almost a publicity stunt to promote Sandel’s new book on the moral limits of markets.
Does this matter? Does it matter that people who have been nominated and honoured by the community for their contribution to it have chosen to sell the symbol of that honour? And does it make a difference that some of those who have done so (say they) are giving the proceeds to charity?
Sandel had not heard of the torch selling story and takes a minute to take it in. “The torch is being commodified either way,” he begins, “but it makes a difference if it is for charitable purposes.”
Thus far most people would follow him, simply by instinct. We feel that there is something grubby about selling an Olympic Torch, albeit a grubbiness that is cleaned up a little by the prospect of the profits going to charity. But most of us have difficulty in turning that feeling into reason, in articulating why it is wrong. Sandel doesn’t, and it is this that makes him one of the world’s leading, and 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 person gain.”
This idea goes to the heart of Sandel’s latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, for which he has travelled from Harvard, where he is Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, to London for a few hectic days.
The book, which builds on his previous best–selling book Justice, his hugely popular course in moral reasoning at Harvard, and his widely–applauded 2009 Reith Lectures entitled ‘A New Citizenship’, 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.
Thus Santa Ana in California sells cell upgrades to prisoners; underachieving children are paid to read books in Dallas, Texas; the company Linestanding.com hires people to stand in line so as to reserve places for those who wish to lobby Congress; and Air New Zealand recently paid punters to shave their heads and sport temporary tattoos advertising the company. Everything has its price.
Or, rather, not quite everything. “Even in our market–driven societies we do ban certain mutually–advantageous trades,” he tells me. “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 would have their way, however, there would be far fewer limits. What Money Can’t Buy tells of economists and politicians who have suggested charging admission to refugees fleeing persecution, allowing people to exceed the state speed limit for a fee, and of creating a market in “procreation licences” as a way of dealing with overpopulation.
Such ideas may seem to be as far–fetched as they are unsavoury to us today, but the idea of buying the life–insurance for a terminally–ill AIDS patient and then rooting for an early death would have seemed far–fetched a generation ago and is today a legitimate, multi–billion dollar industry. What has changed? How have we come so far in such a short time?
There were important changes within economics, Sandel explains. In particular there was “the emergence of the idea that economics is not only about the organisation of productive activity, [but that] it’s a way of understanding and explaining all of human behaviour, all of human life.”
Significant enough in its own right, when combined with the momentous collapse of communism this became epochal. “At the end of the Cold War we drew the wrong lesson. 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 argument but I wonder whether it is the whole truth. Is the spread of the market really an ideological project? Is it not simply 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. Isn’t this just the curse of a “developed” society?
Sandel disagrees. There is nothing inevitable about the extent of our commodification of life. “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 last two decades is not simply an economic idea, propagated by ideologically–driven politicians. “It has a deeper appeal than a merely economic one,” Sandel goes on. “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.”
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, that 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.”
What does this mean? His book cites the example of permits to hunt endangered black rhinos that have been issued by the South African government. On the face of it, this sounds barbaric: hanging a ‘For Sale’ (or ‘For Slaughter’) sign round the neck of a magnificent and very rare wild animal.
But the reality is rather 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. It has worked. Poaching has diminished and rhino numbers have bounced back. Commodifying, it appears, can work.
It is to Sandel’s credit that he includes examples like this in his book and he smiles and nods vigorously when I point that out to him. 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 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 Sandel wants a debate, it looks like he may get one. He is a little lacklustre in our conversation but that is because his schedule has 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 for Sandel.
The day before we meet began with Radio 4’s Start the Week and ended with a well–attended public debate in Oxford, also chaired by Andrew Marr. After we part he is whisked away by taxi to tackle John Redwood MP on the BBC’s Daily Politics show. The following evening he is before a packed St Paul’s Cathedral, in discussion with leading economists. And sandwiched in between such high–profile appearances, he is passed from one broadsheet interview to another.
Much of this is down to Sandel himself: unfailingly courteous, thoughtful, well–reasoned, and accessible – in a discipline not always famed for such virtues. But much is also down to what he is talking about. There is undoubtedly a widespread public unease with the marketisation 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 can’t agree on the value of things, at least not in any substantive way, so each does his own thing, placing his own value on goods and services through market exchange.
I put it to Sandel that he is perhaps being a little optimistic that we really want, still less will be able to achieve, discussion and resolution about the true value of things. It elicits his one terse response of the interview, although delivered with characteristic charm: “We can’t know until we try.”
Trying, Sandel recognises, is risky. Liberal political philosophy has 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 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 argues, “the alternative [to open debate] is that markets will provide the answers for us,” and that is clearly not an alternative 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.”
Most interestingly, 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 insisting 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, 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 leave, Sandel remarks “mainly I’m trying to connect philosophy to public discourse, to engage with questions that citizens care about.” It’s a typically unassuming comment from an unassuming man. That is indeed what he is doing. But simply by doing that Sandel is encouraging us to look afresh at everything we have taken for granted for too long.
Nick Spencer is Research Director for Theos