The View

One Harvard professor is getting it all wrong when it comes to understanding morality and the economy

Michael Sandel’s communitarian thinking is a danger to liberal values

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2015, 1:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 November, 2015, 4:11pm

Michael Sandel teaches Government at Harvard, where his course “Justice” has been attended by some 15,000 Harvard students and adapted into a 12-part TV series. He is believed to have a large number of fans in China.

In 2013 he published What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. As an economist, I read the book to seek enlightenment about a subject I have been teaching for almost 40 years, but I was deeply disappointed. Sandel is sophisticated about moral and political theory, yet his book is puzzlingly shallow. I was also shocked by the moral implications of what it espoused.

Recently, though, a dear friend who liked the book wanted to discuss its contents with me. In the process of putting together my thoughts, I decided it deserved a wider audience, especially at a time when grassroots politics in our city is turning toward community solidarity and activism.

Economists like markets because under certain conditions (such as competition between producers), they tend to promote innovation and the efficient allocation of resources.

In contrast, moral philosophers tend to focus on the fairness of a market system. There are multiple aspects to this, such as inequality and exploitation.

However, Sandel’s critique is not about fairness or efficiency. Rather, he purports to demonstrate that markets corrupt, or degrade, the goods they are used to allocate.

He argues that scalping free tickets to a public concert, accepting the children of “donors” to prestigious universities, selling residency rights to prospective immigrants, etc. degrade their nature. Therefore, “we” as a society should deliberate on the proper meaning and purpose of various goods, relationships, and activities and how they should be valued.

Sandel’s approach is best understood as a reactionary conservative one: its implications threaten many principles that liberals should hold dear

Unfortunately, Sandel’s examples do not demonstrate that markets corrupt the things they touch – first, because few of them have anything to do with markets and second, because they do not really support the claim of corruption.

Take monetary incentives: offering a child US$2 for every storybook she reads doesn’t seem to have anything to do with markets. Rather, it is an exercise in behavioural control.

Sandel relies on readers’ disgust at the ugliness of the practises he identifies to press his ethical case that the underlying goods and activities are themselves degraded. It seems to me ugliness is not corruption.

The difference is important because Sandel directs us to focus on the appearances (i.e. the presence of dollar signs), which is not particularly helpful for discerning or preventing actual corruption. In the real world, we can see corruption without money. We also see money without corruption. Is education corrupted because teachers earn a salary? Does food taste worse because you bought it rather than growing it yourself? Sandel’s account is simply superficial.

Some left-leaning liberals endorse Sandel’s book simply because it criticises markets. They should be careful. Sandel’s approach is best understood as a reactionary conservative one: its implications threaten many principles that liberals should hold dear.

Sandel’s corruption thesis fails to critically distinguish between what is socially accepted as opposed to being morally proper. He assumes market exchange arrangements are always worse than alternative “moral” relationships. Yet liberals know well those traditional social institutions that rely on dreary moral and emotional obligations are as capable of gross injustice and corruption as market ones.

Sandel’s communitarian political philosophy and his politicisation of value questions also assumes that a community can determine the single right answer to value questions and that this is what democratic politics is for. But conveniently he never tells us who is among the “we.”

Liberals, however, are committed to separating the private and public spheres. They don’t consider it the business of politics to make decisions about how everyone in society should value baseball, or to ban whatever might corrupt that purpose.

Who is the “we” in Sandel’s communitarianism?

Having desperately poor people is a moral problem. Hong Kong’s poverty line for a household with 4 persons was US$16,400 in 2014, which is a comfortable middle-class income in India. That fact matters because Sandel does not address why we in Hong Kong should ignore the desperation of people earning US$1 a day in Bangladesh, and attend instead to the “unfairness” and “corruption” of ticket scalping at a free public concert.

This is a moral failure of communitarianism. Sandel does not face the actual, moral problem of real poverty. Instead, he wants us to fiddle with prices and create queues for free Shakespeare in the Park.

Communitarianism is not my cup of tea; it is too parochial and conservative. Still, I had an interesting time watching and listening to Sandel teaching justice at my computer.

Richard Wong Yue-chim is Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong