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Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. He is the author of[…]

The political philosopher and Harvard professor on the limits of the free market.

Megan Erickson: Hello, and welcome to Big Think Live.  Our guest today is Michael Sandel, author of What Money Can’t Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets, and a professor of government at Harvard.  We’re delighted to have him here to talk to us today about the role of markets in a democratic society.  Michael, welcome to the program.  

Michael Sandel:  Good to be with you. 

Megan Erickson: So, we’ll start with the first question, then.  In your view, why was there such a pronounced lack of moral reckoning or even serious reflection on the role of markets in society after the financial collapse of 2008?  

Michael Sandel:  It’s interesting why there hasn’t really been a debate about the role of markets in our society after the financial crisis.  It looked as though the moment was right to have such a debate; after all, there had been three decades of market faith some might even call it market triumphalism.  And then came the financial crash.  But there hasn’t really been a serious re-examination of the role of markets and money in our society.  And one of the goals of the book is to try to encourage that kind of debate. 

Megan Erickson:  Okay, great.  So, moving on to sort of the dilemmas that arise from that, from market values in society, what do you think about school children being paid to get good grades and high scores on standardized tests?  

Michael Sandel:  Well, using financial incentives, cash, to try to motivate children to do better in school, this is one of a number of attempts to use money, markets, financial incentives to solve social problems.  Now, people disagree about whether it makes sense to offer a kid, especially in underperforming schools, cash for good grades, doing well on tests, or reading books.  In Dallas, they offer third graders $2.00 for each book they read.  
Megan Erickson: Now, from the – one way of thinking about his is to say, well, does it work?  Do the grades go up?  Do the test scores go up?  And the record on that is mixed.  In the New York City schools, the cash incentives did not have any effect.  In Dallas, where they pay the third graders $2.00 to ready books, the kids did read more books, but shorter ones.  

Michael Sandel: There’s a larger question, which is, what message are we sending?  What are we teaching by trying to motivate children to learn or study or read for money?  Are we getting them in the habit at least of achieving academically?  That’s the optimistic way of looking at it.  Or, are we sending a message, are we cultivating an attitude about learning that, say, reading a book is a chore that you get paid for?  If that’s the message that comes across and even if they read more books now being paid, what will happen when the payments stop?  And will the money, will the financial incentive crowd out the attitudes toward learning that ideally we want to cultivate?  Will it crowd out the intrinsic love of learning and reading for their own sake?  That’s the worry.  

Megan Erickson: Right, yeah.  And that’s, I think that’s a fascinating point.  And it’s a good segue to the larger question of the book, which is, how we’ve drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.  

Michael Sandel:  Right.  

Megan Erickson:  So, how does living in a market society affect our interactions in relationships aside from the grade issue?  There are larger issues in how we treat each other.  

Michael Sandel:  Right.  Well, first I should say a word about what I mean by the distinction between having a market economy and becoming a market society.  

A market economy is a tool; it’s a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity.  A market society is different.  A market society is a place; it’s a way of life where market relations and market incentives and market values come to dominate all aspects of life.  And that’s my worry.  Without quite realizing it, over the past three decades, we have drifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society, a society where just about everything is up for sale.  

And the central question of the book is, do we want to live that way?  And if not, how can we decide as a society where markets serve the public good and where they don’t belong?  And I think the only way we can determine that is by having a public debate about how to value the goods and social practices that we care about and that market values may crowd out as with the love of learning in the case of reading we just talked about.  We need to debate case by case.  Take military service.  In Iraq and Afghanistan there were more paid military contractors than there were U.S. military troops.  Now, we never had a public debate about whether we wanted to outsource the fighting of war.  But we looked up and it had happened.  Market values had come to inform some of the most fateful decisions to do with war, we see it also in education, in health, in how we deal with the environment, in the way we conceive citizenship.  

So, what I’m suggesting is that we need to step back and have a morally robust debate about where markets belong and where they don’t.  [00:08:26.06]

Megan Erickson: So why aren’t these public debates happening?  

Michael Sandel:  Why are they not happening?  [00:08:31.02]

Megan Erickson: Right.  

Michael Sandel:  I think that we shy away from debating hard controversial, moral questions in public discourse for an understandable reason.  When it comes to values, when it comes to competing notions of how to value this or that good, people disagree, sometimes fiercely.  And so there’s a temptation to have a kind of public life that leaves hard moral questions, hard ethical questions to one side.  For the sake of agreement, for the sake of toleration, that’s the impulse, to be non-judgmental.  But I think it’s a mistake because if you look at the terms of political discourse today in the United States, it’s not a pretty picture.  Our public debates are not going very well.  They mainly consist of shoving matches on cable television and talk radio and ideological food fights in Congress.  

I think the reason we have such an impoverished public debate is that we are too reluctant to take on hard controversial, but important moral questions that really go to the heart of the question of what kind of society do we want to live in.  So I think that’s why we’ve shied away from a serious moral debate about where markets belong and where they don’t.  And the result is we have a kind of managerial, technocratic politics that many people find uninspiring.  

So I think we should face up to the challenge of raising serious questions about where markets belong, where they serve the public good, recognizing that that will involve moral controversy.  People have different views about reproduction or about organ sales or about education and motivating children or about how to allocate military services.  But those are the debates I think that we need to have.  [00:10:38.07]

Megan Erickson:  Yes, and organ sales is a great example. Could tell us a little bit more about that, how turning biology into a market with blood donation or the sale of blood and organ donation affects our sense of ourselves and our understanding of how we relate to each other?

Michael Sandel:  Yes.  Well, organ sales – should there be a market, a free market in kidneys?  There’s a lively debate about this in the United States now.  There is not – you can’t buy and sell kidneys, although there is a quite significant global trade in organs.  Some of it on the black market, some of it permitted in some places.  There are debates about whether we should allow the sale, the buying and selling of blood for transfusion.  There are debates about surrogate motherhood, as it’s called; outsourcing pregnancy, paid pregnancy.  Should this be permitted?  Some states permit it, some don’t.  

All of these questions are not only questions about markets and about economic efficiency from the standpoint of economic efficiency, there should be a market in principle in everything including kidneys, including blood, including paid pregnancy.  But economic efficiency is not the only value; it’s not the only thing we care about.  We also have to decide what sorts of attitudes toward our own bodies and toward one another and in the case of surrogacy, what attitudes toward women are consistent with respect and with human dignity.  These are ethical debates that economics by itself can’t solve.  It’s where economics and ethics meet.  

And what I think we need to do is not only to revitalize our public life through these moral debates, I think we also, especially those of us in the academy, need to rethink economics as a discipline.  The more economic thinking extends to bodies and reproductive capacities and educational practices, the less plausible it is to assume that economics is a value-free science.  The more ambitious economics becomes the more it has to engage with hard moral questions.  It has to become, in effect, a branch, I think, of moral and political philosophy.  

So, the civic project of revitalizing our public debate about markets and where they belong is connected, I think, to and intellectual challenge, to reconceive economics as a subject, as a discipline, to bring it into closer contact with moral and political philosophy. 

Megan Erickson:  So the last question that we have for you is, how has this book grown out of your previous work as a teacher and a writer on justice?  

Michael Sandel:  Well, I’ve been working for some years teaching and writing about political philosophy.  And my last book about justice was really a question to do with how to distribute… what’s a fair way to distribute the good things in life?  This, the book, What Money Can’t Buy, is about a particular question related to justice, but also more broadly to the question of the good society.  To what extent do we want to live in a society where everything is up for sale?  We’re drifting, I think, in the direction of being such a society.  But sometimes markets, money and market values can erode, or crowd out, important non-market values and so, in a way, this project about trying to spur a debate about the moral limits of markets it tries to reconnect economics and economic thinking to political philosophy, debates about justice and the good society in general.

Megan Erickson:  Okay great.  Thank you so much for being with us today, Michael.  We invite our Big Think audience to check out Michael Sandel’s new book, What Money Can’t Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  Please check back to to watch additional video clips from our conversation with Michael and to find out about future live interviews with our experts.  Thanks for watching.   

Interviewed by Megan Erickson

Edited/Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd