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Money, Markets, and Democrats: A Conversation with Michael Sandel

By Jack Meserve

Tagged EconomicsMichael Sandelpolitics

The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, along with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, is releasing a six-part video series exploring the themes of his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy, which examined what the proper role of markets are in a just society. The videos include conversations with college students, as well as prominent economists, including Joseph Stiglitz, Larry Summers, Minouche Shafik, Greg Mankiw, Dambisa Moyo, Richard Posner, and Robert Barro. Democracy Managing Editor Jack Meserve spoke to Sandel about the project, the themes of the book, and the failures of center-left parties in the United States and Europe. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jack Meserve: What Money Can’t Buy was published in 2012, what made you and INET return to it at this moment?

Michael Sandel: We have two main goals. One, we’re hoping that a video series might be able to help provoke public debate about the role and reach of money and markets in democracy and in our social life. That’s the main objective.

There’s  another, which is to have an influence on the way economics is taught. By making these videos available, we are hoping to provide a teaching resource for courses in economics to include a week or a unit on some normative aspects of economic arguments, in hopes that we can make a modest contribution to reconnecting economics with broader questions of moral and political philosophy. So those are the two goals that we’re aiming at. One is contributing to, and provoking, public discourse, and the other is trying to reconnect the teaching of economics with ethical questions.

Meserve: To start with the second, you have an impressive collection of economists: Robert Barro, Greg Mankiw, Larry Summers, Richard Posner. I don’t think of economists as a whole as being eager to discuss basic values—what’s wrong with paying people to vote, or auctioning off the right to immigrate—in the way that you tend to do. Were they receptive to the kind of conversations that you were bringing up to them?

Sandel: Right, well part of what’s striking about the interviews with the economists is that I was inviting them to engage with moral and political questions that might be tangential to economics as practiced, but that get right to the heart of the field. I was impressed and grateful for the willingness of a number of the most distinguished economists working today to venture onto this ethically contested terrain. And they did it with a very good spirit, with an exploratory spirit. I hope students of economics will find this very striking and stimulating, to see some of the luminaries of mainstream economics venturing into discussion of the normative implications of economics.

Meserve: You said your first goal was to spur discussion of markets and money invading different spaces in modern life. There’s been a recent surge of energy on the left that’s taking up these issues as well. Much of their messaging and their substantive goals seem like “Michael Sandel” issues: money and market-thinking taking over society. For instance, one of the straws that broke the camel’s back in the West Virginia teachers’ strike was that teachers were going to be monitored by Fitbits, and if they didn’t exercise enough their insurance premiums would eventually go up. That’s offensive in a lot of ways, but one is by inserting monetary incentives where they aren’t appropriate. There’s news stories of sick people taking Ubers to the emergency room because they don’t know whether an ambulance will be covered, or prisoners having to pay $2 per minute to call family members. Many of these issues are right in your wheelhouse, but the groups raising them come from a different place than your communitarian background. It’s a more democratic socialist, or anti-capitalist energy. Have you thought about this?

Sandel: The example that you just mentioned, Jack, about the teachers in West Virginia rebelling against the requirement that their health be monitored so that costs will reduced, is a perfect example of the reach of markets into every corner of social life that I worried about in the book and that we wanted to draw attention to through the series. Average people, and the teachers in West Virginia are a wonderful example of this, are deeply troubled by the tendency of society to be colonized by market thinking and market incentives of the kind you mentioned. But there seems to be a gap between the critical ways people are thinking about market overreach in social and civic life, and its absence in national political conversation. 

The national public discourse, including within the Democratic Party, has by and large failed to address the fundamental question about the place of money and markets in our lives.

“The political discourse of the mainstream Democratic Party has become a sort of narrow, managerial, technocratic talk.”

And I think this is partly because the Democratic Party, going back to the 1990s, has accepted more-or-less uncritically the premise of the neoliberal conception of globalization. It was the Clinton Administration, together with Republicans, who put through free trade agreements and the deregulation of the financial industry. This is not solely the work of Republicans. And in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, it was the Obama Administration that, largely with economic officials and advisors who had presided over that deregulation of the financial industry, performed a bailout in a way which did not hold the banks or Wall Street CEOs accountable, that did little to help ordinary homeowners. 

And I think this contributed to the amount of anger and resentment toward both parties that we saw. We saw the populist protest on the left with the Occupy movement and with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, and on the right with the Tea Party movement and the election of Trump.

But the politics of protest across the political spectrum, left and right, I think flow from the way the Obama Administration tried more to placate than to articulate seething public anger toward Wall Street. The national Democratic Party has, from the ’90s through the time of the bailout, been complicit in a neoliberal version of globalization that gave rewards to those on top but left ordinary workers disempowered.

This is a pattern that we’ve seen in other democracies as well. The most conspicuous casualty of the populist backlash against rising inequality and neoliberal globalization has been liberal and center-left parties: the Democratic Party in the United States; the Labour Party in Britain, which is what led to Jeremy Corbyn surprisingly being elected leader of the Labour Party after the party lost the last general election; the Socialist Party in France, which received only 6 percent of the vote in the first round of the last presidential election; the Social Democratic Party in Germany got its lowest share of the vote since the end of the Second World War. I think that there is a pattern here and I think that the challenge is for progressive or center-left parties to redefine their mission and purpose in a way that takes on these fundamental questions.

Meserve: You mention redefining their purpose—it’s become ubiquitous for Democrats or progressives to make the case for various public policies in terms of economic gains. “If we give people health care they won’t go bankrupt,” “If we send kids to college their earnings will go up.” Now, people making a living and not going bankrupt is important, but health care and education are also goods in and of themselves. I recently finished a book on the Works Progress Administration, and many of the jobs provided—circus performers, the Federal Theatre Project—would never pass a traditional cost-benefit analysis in the way that we’ve become so used to doing. That’s a long-winded way of asking: Should the goal of progressivism be making the case for policies as ends rather than as means to an economic goal?


Sandel: Yes, I think that progressive and social democratic parties need to reconnect with their traditional positions of taming capitalism and of holding economic power to democratic account. That was the mission of the Democratic Party from the era of progressive reform, to the anti-trust movement, up until the New Deal, and even up to the Great Society. And its that traditional mission of the Democratic Party or of social democratic parties that progressives need to reconnect with and reimagine. In place of that tradition and political project, in recent decades the Democratic Party has become a party more hospitable to the professional classes than to the working-class voters who once were its base. And this is true of any of the social democratic parties of Europe as well in the last two decades.

And the result has been, just as you suggest, that the political discourse of the mainstream Democratic Party has become a sort of narrow, managerial, technocratic talk, which inspires no one and creates a hollowness in public discourse that, sooner or later, is filled by a kind of vengeful intolerance and nationalism. What we’ve seen with Trump and right-wing parties in Europe—I think it’s a symptom of the failure of center-left, social democratic parties to articulate a national community and civic purpose, to speak a language of some solidarity, to ask about the responsibility of citizens for one another. When managerial and technocratic neoliberal public discourse comes to dominate liberal or progressive politics, it’s no wonder that a great many voters, especially working-class and middle-class ones, feel that the party no longer speaks to them, no longer addresses questions they care about.

Meserve: Thank you.

The video series “What Money Can’t Buy” can be found here.

Read more about EconomicsMichael Sandelpolitics

Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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