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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.