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The NS Profile: Michael Sandel

A public intellectual, he delivers lectures at Harvard that are wildly popular. He preaches that the

Urban legend has it that the man chosen by the BBC to deliver this year’s Reith Lectures was the real-world inspiration for a character in The Simpsons. Montgomery Burns, the desiccated and occasionally malevolent owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is said to have been modelled, in his phy­sical characteristics if nothing else, on Michael Sandel, Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University. Many Simpsons writers have been Harvard alumni, and giving Mr Burns, one of Springfield’s least morally upstanding citizens, Sandel’s broad forehead and thin lips was a kind of Harvardian in-joke: for nearly 30 years now, Sandel has taught the university’s most popular undergraduate course – “Justice”.

Each year Justice, or Moral Reasoning 22, to give it its alternative title, a course in moral and political philosophy, draws more than 1,200 students, and the university has to requisition its largest lecture theatre to accommodate them. One of the most visited pages on the Harvard website carries a video in which Sandel addresses, without notes, a rapt audience on so-called “trolley problems”, imaginary dilemmas dreamt up by philosophers in order to get people to reflect on their intuitions about the relationship between action and intention. James Crabtree, now managing editor of Prospect magazine, was a teaching fellow (or graduate teaching assistant) on Justice between 2004 and 2006. He remembers the first time he saw Sandel lecture.

“It was pretty extraordinary. They were turning people away at the door. He’s a great lecturer – very engaging.”

A Harvard PhD candidate, Andrew Schroeder, also a former teaching fellow on Justice (the English-born political writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan is another), thinks the key to Sandel’s popularity with successive generations of undergraduates lies in his readiness to eschew the fantastic thought-experiments that are a staple of contemporary moral philosophy.

“His greatest strength, and one of the reasons Justice [is] so popular, is his ability to find real-world cases that show the depth and difficulty of issues in moral and political philosophy. Many discussions in moral philosophy are inspired by a single real-world example, and then move very quickly to focus on an abstract question. Sandel, though, can brilliantly marshal a huge range of examples to show how pervasive and difficult [an issue] is. That, I think, is what makes the class so popular and really inspires the students to work at the material,” Schroeder says. “I imagine Sandel reading the New York Times every day, cutting out articles that may have philosophical relevance and putting them in a file somewhere, to be summoned as necessary.”

Sandel doesn’t just read the New York Times, however; he is also a regular contributor to the paper’s op-ed pages, as well as to a number of other major American periodicals (including the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic). Indeed, one assumes that it was his status as a “public” philosopher or intellectual – and not merely his reputation as a lecturer – that first caught the eye of the BBC.

For the past 15 years, Sandel has written as often for his fellow citizens as for his academic colleagues. His work, which has broached an impressively wide range of issues (from stem-cell research and affirmative action to the branding of sporting events and the use of commercial logos in schools), blurs the distinction between political commentary and political philosophy – and that is one of its strengths.

We met at Claridge’s, in central London, a couple of days after he had delivered “Markets and Morals”, the first of four Reith Lectures that will be broadcast on Radio 4 this month. He was dressed casually in a black polo neck, grey woollen slacks and expensive sneakers, like an East Coast academic in a Woody Allen movie.

Sandel sees his obligations as a philosopher as being continuous with his responsibilities as a citizen. For him, political philosophy is engaged or it is nothing. “The responsibility of political philosophy that tries to engage with practice is to be clear, or at least accessible – clear enough that its arguments and concerns can be accessible to a non-academic public. Otherwise, it’s not possible really for political philosophers to generate debate that could possibly challenge existing understandings.”

What is striking about this conception of the task of the public philosopher is just how ambitious it is. Where, for many of his contemporaries, the job of the philosopher is merely to tease out the abstract principles underlying public debate and deliberation, for Sandel it is to intervene in the debates themselves. “Public philosophy is set apart from academic political philosophy, in that it means not only to be about prevailing practices and assumptions, but also to address them,” he says. “To address fellow citizens about them and to try to provoke discussion and critical reflection among the public generally. So that political philosophy isn’t only about public things, but engages public things and, if it’s successful, reorients the way people relate to politics and the public realm.”

All of Sandel’s work, the academic treatises as much as the op-eds and magazine articles, circles obsessively around just this question: the nature and extent of the public realm. (The Reith Lectures are being delivered under the general heading “A New Citizenship” and culminate in a sketch of what Sandel calls “A New Politics of the Common Good”.) He traces these concerns back to a trip to southern Spain he took in the mid-1970s, at the end of his first term as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he had gone to read for a DPhil after graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Brandeis University, in Massachusetts.“At the time, I thought I might pursue economics,” he tells me. “I was interested in welfare economics and the extent to which economic models could incorporate a concern for equality. I went to Spain with an economist, and we were going to try to work this out in a paper.”

One of his tutors at Oxford, Alan Montefiore, suggested to Sandel that he also take some books with him to Spain. He ended up taking four: John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and The Human Condition by Hannah Arendt. The idea was that Sandel would spend the days reading; he and his economist friend would work on their article in the evenings. Very soon, what he was reading by day caused the projected article on economics to unravel.

The “dismal science” of economics, he now thought, was excessively pessimistic about human beings, conceiving of them as little more than bundles of preferences and desires. This was a picture it inherited from utilitarianism, for which all moral and political principles are justified to the extent that they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What Sandel took from reading Rawls and Kant was a “devastating and convincing critique of utilitarianism”.

Michael Sandel: the CV

1953 Born 5 March in Minneapolis, Minnesota
1975 Graduates from Brandeis University
1981 Earns doctorate from Balliol College, Oxford, where he is a Rhodes scholar
1980 Begins teaching contemporary political philosophy at Harvard University. To date, more than 14,000 undergraduate students have enrolled on his Justice course, an introduction to moral and political philosophy
1982 Liberalism and the Limits of Justiceis published
1985 Receives the Harvard-Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize
1999 Becomes full professor at Harvard
2001 Works as visiting professor at the Sorbonne in Paris
2002 Named the inaugural Anne T and Robert M Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University
2005 Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality In Politics is published
2005-2007 Advises the Bush administration on the ethical implications of biomedical new technologies
2008 Honoured by the American
Political Science Association for his excellence in teaching
2009 Delivers the Reith Lectures on
“A New Citizenship”
Research by Tara Graham

In A Theory of Justice, which ignited a dramatic renewal of political philosophy in the US and Britain following its publication in 1971, Rawls had argued that by focusing exclusively on the promotion of the general welfare, utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill miss an equally significant dimension of moral and political life.

Political rights, for example, are important, Rawls said, not only because they tend to promote human happiness, but also because they protect individual human beings against being used as a means to some end or other, however desirable that end might be. Moreover, according to Rawls, basic rights and fundamental principles of justice could be derived in such a way that all reasonable people would endorse them, irrespective of their differing moral and religious beliefs – and that was crucial in modern, pluralistic societies such as the United States, which are characterised by profound ethical disagreements about the nature of the good life.

Though reading Rawls may have been what set Sandel on the path from economics to poli­tical philosophy, his academic reputation in the US was secured by his first book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), based on his Oxford thesis – which was a full-frontal attack on the version of liberalism set out in A Theory of Justice. Under the influence of a notably heterodox group of philosophers at Oxford, which included Stuart Hampshire, Charles Taylor (with whom he recently co-taught a graduate class at Harvard) and Leszek Kolakowski, Sandel began to formulate deep misgivings about the Rawlsian model, which seemed to him to make the surrendering of the moral and religious convictions that people hold most dear a condition of access to the public sphere.

The effects of emptying public life of moral and religious discourse have been disastrous, Sandel tells me. “It’s contributed to a moral vacuum that has been filled by narrow, intolerant moralisms. It has allowed the Christian right to have more appeal than it might otherwise have had, precisely because the field was cleared.” Sandel’s argument is that political progressives, of whom he is one, should actively engage people’s deepest beliefs, rather than ignore them. “As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, in American politics it was the left, more than the right, which broached moral and religious themes. Think about Martin Luther King and his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ – that drew unabashedly on Christian themes, as well as universal ones.”

Sandel thinks Barack Obama, for one, has recognised this. “He is trying to articulate a politics of the common good and, unlike a lot of politicians, particularly those to the left of centre, he does not shy away from engaging with moral and spiritual language. He has brought moral and religious sensibilities back into politics, against a background in which such themes have been monopolised by the Christian right. Progressives have reacted, not by engaging the Christian right, but by trying to keep morality and religion out of politics altogether.”

Sandel’s prescriptions for a “remoralisation” of the language of progressive politics appear to be striking a chord here, as well as in the United States. Leading politicians of all parties, including Ed Miliband, David Willetts and Dame Shirley Williams, were present to hear him deliver his first lecture, and the MP Jon Cruddas, one of the few philosophically curious occupants of the Labour back benches, thinks they are right to be listening.

“Sandel’s challenge is to the whole architecture of neoliberalism,” Cruddas tells me. “And not just to liberalism in an economic sense, but to liberalism more generally. What he is saying is that a particular conception of the individual is being challenged in the current economic crisis.”He is right: Sandel’s work is an uncomfortable reminder of what we lost when we threw in our lot with a vision of politics as little more than the pursuit of economic growth and the protection of individual choice.

The Reith Lectures by Michael Sandel begin on BBC Radio 4 on 9 June (9am)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Picture: Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Images
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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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