The UK Autumn conference season’s Labour Party gathering at the beginning of October featured an unusual guest speaker: contemporary philosopher Michael Sandel. The Harvard professor and rock-star moralist dazzled the Party crowd with a lecture on the moral limits of markets, which is also the subject of his latest book “What money can’t buy”.
Sandel’s belief in an active democracy emerges clearly in the book and takes in the form of a call for engaged citizenry. His hope is nothing less than to enrich public debate on what should or shouldn’t belong to the marketplace, as opposed to what lies properly in the public domain and in the realm of public policy. In Rousseau’s words, which Sandel quotes,
“[a]s soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the state is not far from its fall.”
Sandel’s book and his arguments have stimulated a rich debate on how far markets should encroach our public life.
But assuming that there is and should be a limit to the role of markets – a role bounded by morals – would the adoption of such a worldview itself help to deliver democratic systems that are better equipped for sustainable development? Could it provide part of the foundation for transformation in the architecture and practice of liberal democracy? Might it provide support for reforms to ensure that equity and the needs of current and future generations alike are embedded within democracy, and to diminish the gravitational pull of short-term electoral cycles?
Answering ‘yes’ is tempting, for two reasons:
- Key to Sandel’s argument against the imposition of markets on every aspect of public life is the issue of fairness. As Sandel explains, “[M]arket choices are not free choices if some people are desperately poor or lack the ability to bargain on fair terms”.Let’s take water as an example. If private utilities are economically efficient, by allocating the resource at the right price, to people who are willing and able to pay the most for it (and therefore, as many say, to people who value it most), where does that leave those who get left out of the system (because of lack of ability to pay)?Applying the argument in another context: what if people are willing and able to pay for water, but they’re not able to do so yet? That is certainly the case for future generations – unborn, but with specific interests and needs that, through current market exchanges with long-term effects, are not effectively (let alone fairly) taken into account.
- At the core of Sandel’s reasoning is the proposal to restore a healthy debate on the conceptions of “the good life” in civic discourse. He writes:
“once we see that markets and commerce change the character of the goods they touch, we have to ask where markets belong – and where they don’t. And we can’t answer this question without deliberating about the meaning and purpose of goods, and the values that should govern them.”
Sandel argues that markets tend to corrupt norms and values they’re attached to – degrading them, until, in some cases, they completely disappear from our civic landscape and are replaced by values that reflect individualism and commodification instead. How can we then foster respect for one another, solidarity, respect of our environment, and other values which are embedded in any meaningful conception of sustainable development?
Sandel’s work invites deep reflection on whether commercialization of public life has and should have a limit. Let’s ask ourselves if the same holds true for the role of markets in achieving a fairer, greener, and healthier world – for generations to come. And let’s use this debate to better equip our democracies not only for current challenges, but also for future ones.
Illustration source: Philosophy Monkey