Sandel on values when everything’s for sale

Matthew Reisz meets Harvard superstar Michael Sandel to discuss the preservation of the public good

July 11, 2013

If money only determined access to fancy vacations and yachts, inequality would matter less. Now it also governs good education; decent healthcare; safe neighbourhoods; who fights our wars; access to political power

Michael Sandel - Anne T. and Robert M. Bass professor of government at Harvard University - is very much the international academic superstar.

His legendary course on justice, which attracts more than 1,000 students each year in the flesh, has been downloaded by millions across the globe since it was made freely available online in 2009. He has filled vast stadiums in South Korea and in 2010 was described as “the most influential foreign figure of the year” by China Newsweek. Sandel has also been a BBC Reith lecturer and a visiting professor at the Sorbonne.

His 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets was showered with praise, with former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams leading the chorus of approval, describing it as “little less than a wake- up call to recognise our desperate need to rediscover some intelligible way of talking about humanity, interiority, mutuality…before we are submerged in barbarism”.

So when I meet Sandel in the bar of his hotel during a recent British tour to launch the paperback, I know that I am dealing with someone who has already been interviewed hundreds of times. Although he is charming and a gracious listener considering how many times he must have been asked the same questions, it is soon clear that he has got his story pretty straight and that he is not going to say any more than he means to. It seems worth probing him, however, about a striking moment in the book when it suddenly turns personal.

What Money Can’t Buy is full of eloquent examples of what can go and has gone wrong in the US and beyond once everything is up for sale: prison upgrades for those who can afford it; markets for refugees and in papal masses; millionaires given the opportunity to hunt endangered black rhinos; companies receiving huge insurance payouts when ex-employees die; schools drowning under corporate placements even in their curricular material. But when he comes to pulling the argument together in the final chapter, Sandel takes a trip down memory lane to the baseball of his childhood and the way it has been spoiled by commercialism.

This has apparently led to “more protracted at bats, more walks, more pitches thrown, more pitching changes, less free swinging, less daring on the base paths, fewer bunts and stolen bases”. (Non-baseball fans will have to take his word for it that this is a bad thing.) More significantly, ballparks were until recently “places where corporate executives sat side by side with blue-collar workers, where everyone waited in the same line to buy hotdogs or beer, and where rich and poor alike got rained on if it rained”: now vastly expensive “skyboxes” keep the haves and have-nots strictly segregated. If we want a single word to summarise the damage wrought by “the era of market triumphalism”, Sandel proposes it should be “skyboxification”.

All this sounds a bit sentimental, like a Hollywood movie looking back to more innocent times. Surely there are more important reasons to worry about the impact of “market triumphalism”, I suggest, than nostalgia for the days when everybody queued up for hot dogs together?

Yet Sandel sees the changes as far more significant and symptomatic.

“There are fewer and fewer class-mixing experiences in public spaces,” he explains. “Commercial pressures are eroding the sense of community - and that is a metaphor for changes that markets have brought in social life more generally, including in education, health, politics, family life and personal relations, all domains where similar trends can be seen.”

Furthermore, he says, “the expansion of market values into areas hitherto governed by non-market values” has greatly sharpened the sting of the rising inequality witnessed during the same period.

Michael Sandel throwing a baseball

Economics has adopted an imperial ambition to explain all human behaviour. As its ambitions have expanded, it has become less and less plausible to think that it could be value-free

“If money only determined access to fancy vacations and yachts, inequality would matter less. Now it also governs good education; decent healthcare; safe neighbourhoods; who fights our wars; access to political power.”

Sandel is not the only leading American academic to use baseball as a metaphor for life. In 2004, he reports in his book, his “friend and colleague Larry Summers”, then president of Harvard, gave a speech praising the new, far more commercialised “moneyball” approach to the sport, and particularly “a very wise general manager” who had hired “a PhD in econometrics” to calculate exactly what strategies and combinations of players make a winning team. Similar lessons had been learned on Wall Street, where investment banking had been “transformed from a field that was dominated by people who were good at meeting clients at the 19th hole, to people who were good at solving very difficult mathematical problems that were involved in pricing derivative securities”.

“Just four years before the financial crisis,” Sandel writes, here was “the market triumphalist faith - the moneyball faith - on bold display.”

Elsewhere in the book, Sandel has fun at the expense of economists who claim to believe that cash is always the best gift, since one’s own choice of how to spend a given sum is likely to give one more pleasure than someone else’s. Sandel challenges this crass “utility-maximising conception of friendship” on the interesting grounds - also highly relevant to education - that it assumes that “the right way to treat friends is to satisfy their preferences - not to challenge or deepen or complicate them”.

So how much of the blame, I ask him, should academic economists take for the financial crash and the continuing mess we are all in?

Although careful to point to political developments and “the power and influence of a rising financial industry” as other causal factors, he agrees that “a prominent line of reasoning among academic economists provided the intellectual groundwork for market triumphalism”.

He adds: “The whole discipline needs to be reconceived. In its origins, at the time of Adam Smith, it was conceived of as a branch of moral and political philosophy. That’s the right way to think about it. But it came to define itself as a value-neutral science, apart from moral and political science. Over the past three decades it has adopted an imperial ambition to explain all human behaviour. As its ambitions have expanded, it has become less and less plausible to think that it could be value-free.

“Markets save us from messy, controversial debates about the right way to value goods and social practices. That is why it runs so deep and helps explain the puzzle that, even after the financial crisis, the market faith has proved very difficult to dislodge.”

One of Sandel’s core goals is to encourage the activity and the habit of reasoning together in public about big ethical issues. Instead of shying away from “messy, controversial debates”, we need to be having far more of them. A crucial downside of the decades in which markets have come to dominate almost every aspect of life, he argues, is that they have “coincided with public discourse being largely empty of public meaning and purpose. Economics crowded out politics, leaving a moral void to be filled by narrow, intolerant, often fundamentalist forces. That opened the way to narrow moralisms, with values-driven politics focused on a limited number of issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research.”

He adds: “People rightly want politics to be about big ethical questions that matter, such as how we organise the economy. I say we should broaden the kind of moral and ethical issues we debate. I’m trying to encourage a morally more robust engagement with issues of money and markets.”

Although he does not believe in golden ages (except, perhaps, in baseball) - he thinks that we can find in the past only “traces of a richer kind of civic discourse” - Sandel is clear that we have reached a particularly low ebb today.

Michael Sandel giving a lecture

Sandel stands at the crossroads of many important developments and debates within higher education. On the staff of an elite university and committed to the continuing importance of a traditional Western canon of moral philosophers - Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls - he is also engaged in the widest possible international outreach and possesses a notable talent for making difficult ideas compelling and accessible.

Take just a single example from his 2009 book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (based on his Harvard course): the case of golfer Casey Martin, whose bad leg made him ask for the right to use a golf cart during tournaments. This met with strenuous objections, Sandel writes, partly on grounds of fairness (although that could have been resolved by allowing all golfers to use carts), but far more because of issues of “honor and recognition - specifically the desire of the [Professional Golfers’ Association] and top golfers that their sport be recognized and respected as an athletic event … If the game at which they excel can be played while riding in a cart, their recognition as athletes could be questioned or diminished.” The case could only be decided, Sandel goes on, by determining “the essential nature” of golf, which is closely tied to its “honorific” aspects. And once we have understood this, and the lessons of a similar story about a disabled cheerleader, we have learned something essential about Aristotle’s theory of justice.

So how would he apply the arguments of What Money Can’t Buy to educational policy?

On schools, Sandel offers the firm view that “education should do more than provide basic training for a consumer society. The higher purpose of schools is to equip young people to become effective, critically minded citizens. Consumer choice is not the highest kind of freedom, which requires that people be effective citizens and develop critical faculties and a voice to challenge the way their society is organised.”

Similarly, Sandel believes it “a mistake to think of students as consumers of their education, because that encourages a tendency to see universities in instrumental terms. It is just as important to make the case for the traditional civic and humanistic purposes in institutions that serve first-generation college students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds as it is in elite universities. It is deeply undemocratic if the former focus only on job training.”

Yet it is here that Sandel also reveals some of the seasoned interviewee’s evasiveness. A section in his book on “the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices” ranges from prostitution to “the buying and selling of admissions to elite universities”. When I push him to expand on this, he offers some bland reflections on the need “to guard against the tendency for financial pressures on universities to distort academic values and mission” and “to be very careful in the area of sponsored research”, while refusing to be drawn on how far Harvard and its peers have already been “degraded”.

He is equally cautious in weighing up the potential and limitations of online courses.

He is delighted that putting his justice course online has generated interest “way beyond what we could have imagined. The most exciting promise of online education is creating free and open access to the classroom, so anyone anywhere can engage with the great philosophers of the past and their ideas. It’s a way of giving expression to the idea of higher education as a public good, not a private preserve.”

Yet he also makes a point of stressing that online courses are not quite “the real thing” and that “there’s no substitute for the personal relationship between teacher and student. I don’t think the personal aspect of teaching and learning should be lost at any level.”

Others will have to decide whether Sandel’s own arguments can be used against him to mount a more fundamental challenge to the ways universities are currently organised. In the meantime, he has set many of the terms for the debate.

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