Will the left focus on what money can't buy, or on what money shouldn't buy?

Alex Hern speaks to Michael Sandel about morality in politics and the markets.

Once acquired, stereotypes can be hard to overturn, and it's hard to think of a more enduring stereotype of the British political divide than a hard-headed Conservative making "difficult decisions" which the left decry as immoral. Those of us on the left, we are told over and over, must fight the stereotype by pushing for policy which is efficient on its own terms, and not just "moral". So the argument against forced unpaid work cannot just ride on the obvious truth that that is an unpalatable policy for 21st (or 18th) century Britain; it must also address whether such work succeeds in getting people jobs.

But, argues Michael Sandel, Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, the can pendulum swing too far the other way. "I think that left-wing politics is diminished and impoverished when it tries to limit itself to efficiency arguments alone," he tells me when we sequester ourselves inside the New Statesman's offices on a sunny bank holiday Monday. "The result is a managerial, technocratic kind of public discourse that ultimately fails to inspire."

Sandel knows about inspiring people. What Money Can't Buy has made a splash in the British political scene since its publication: After the Guardian said it should be "the bedside companion of every Miliband aide", the Labour leader himself pronounced it "a powerful argument for change", and invited the philosopher to speak at the party conference last autumn.

The strength of its message comes from linking arguments about what money can't buy – the ones the left grudgingly feels it ought to make – with arguments about what money shouldn't buy. One of the book's case-studies is of some Israeli nurseries which introduced cash penalties for late pick-ups; counter-intuitively, the number of tardy parents actually increased as a result. But even if it hadn't, it would still have turned late pick-ups from something parents felt guilty about to something they could treat as a service they bought.

"So there are these two separate, overlapping arguments," Sandel explains. "One is that the the cash incentives may backfire as a practical matter; the other is, even if they don't backfire in terms of producing less of the behaviour being sought, they may crowd out attitudes and norms, non-market values, worth caring about."

Sandel blames this crowding out on the tendency in social sciences, all across the spectrum, to seize on things that can be weighed and measured, to the exclusion of other areas on import. "When economics was invented by Adam Smith, he conceived it, rightly I think, as a branch of moral and political philosophy. In the 20th Century economics and the social sciences tried to establish themselves as autonomous disciplines, as value-neutral sciences, and I think much has been lost as a result."

"One of the ways I've tried to challenge economistic ways of thinking about social life is to show how, even within efficiency terms, ignoring norms ignores something important."

But doesn't bringing morality into the debate risk being seen as a capitulation? After all, we've spent so long fighting political battles on the basis of narrow claims of efficiency that to abandon them now might be seen as an admission of defeat.

"I disagree," Sandel says when I put it to him. "I think one of the reasons that there is such wide-spread frustration with the existing terms of public discourse, and with the alternatives on offer from the major parties, in democracies around the world, is that there's too much focus on managerial and technocratic concerns, and too little vision."

The left has seized on that message, but there's another nut for Sandel to crack before he can claim victory. "Some strands of Conservative political thought want to bring ethical questions to bear on politics. And so I was hoping to connect with that strand as well." Has he? "I think it remains to be seen."

A woman gives blood in Germany. Research has found that paying for blood can lower the amount offered. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”