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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Just you wait – soon fake news will come to football

No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

So it is all settled: Cristiano Ronaldo will be arriving at Carlisle United at the end of the month, just before deadline day. It all makes sense. He has fallen in love with a Herdwick sheep, just as Beatrix Potter did, and like her, he is putting his money and energy into helping Cumbria, the land of the Herdwick.

He fell out with his lover in Morocco, despite having a private plane to take him straight from every Real Madrid game to their weekly assignation, the moment this particular Herdwick came into his life. His mother will be coming with him, as well as his son, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jr. They want to bring the boy
up communing with nature, able to roam free, walking among the lakes and fells.

Behind the scenes, his agent has bought up CUFC and half of Cumbria on his behalf, including Sellafield, so it is a wise investment. Clearly CUFC will be promoted this year – just look where they are in the table – then zoom-zoom, up they go, back in the top league, at which point his agent hopes they will be offered megabucks by some half-witted Chinese/Russian/Arab moneybags.

Do you believe all that? It is what we now call in the trade fake news, or post-truth – or, to keep it simple, a total lie, or, to be vulgar, complete bollocks. (I made it up, although a pundit on French TV hinted that he thought the bit about Ronaldo’s friend in Morocco might not be too far-fetched. The stuff about Beatrix Potter loving Herdwicks is kosher.)

Fake news is already the number-one topic in 2017. Just think about all those round robins you got with Christmas cards, filled with fake news, such as grandchildren doing brilliantly at school, Dad’s dahlias winning prizes, while we have just bought a gem in Broadstairs for peanuts.

Fake news is everywhere in the world of politics and economics, business and celebrity gossip, because all the people who really care about such topics are sitting all day on Facebook making it up. And if they can’t be arsed to make it up, they pass on rubbish they know is made up.

Fake news has long been with us. Instead of dropping stuff on the internet, they used to drop it from the skies. I have a copy of a leaflet that the German propaganda machine dropped over our brave lads on the front line during the war. It shows what was happening back in Blighty – handsome US soldiers in bed with the wives and girlfriends of our Tommies stuck at the front.

So does it happen in football? At this time of the year, the tabloids and Sky are obsessed by transfer rumours, or rumours of transfer rumours, working themselves into a frenzy of self-perpetuating excitement, until the final minute of deadline day, when the climax comes at last, uh hum – all over the studio, what a mess.

In Reality, which is where I live, just off the North Circular – no, down a bit, move left, got it – there is no such thing as fake news in football. We are immune from fantasy facts. OK, there is gossip about the main players – will they move or will they not, will they be sued/prosecuted/dropped?

Football is concerned with facts. You have to get more goals than the other team, then you win the game. Fact. Because all the Prem games are live on telly, we millions of supplicant fans can see with our eyes who won. No point putting out a story saying that Chelsea got stuffed 19-1 by Spurs. Who would believe it, even if Donald Trump tweeted it?

I suppose the Russkis could hack into the Sky transmissions, making the ball bounce back out of the goal again, or manipulating the replay so goals get scored from impossible angles, or fiddling the electronic scoreboards.

Hmm, now I think about it, all facts can be fiddled, in this electronic age. The Premier League table could be total fiction. Bring back pigeons. You could trust them for the latest news. Oh, one has just arrived. Ronaldo’s romance  with the Herdwick is off! And so am I. Off to Barbados and Bequia
for two weeks.

Hunter Davies’s latest book is “The Biscuit Girls” (Ebury Press, £6.99)

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge