Michael Sandel Reith Lectures A New Politics

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Sandel!

I listened to Sandel’s 4th and last BBC Reith Lecture today, ‘A New Politics of the Common Good’ (check archives for comments on previous lectures). It’s possible for a week after this is posted to listen to the lecture in BBC iPlayer or as a podcast by clicking here. Hopefully the BBC will archive the lectures. The first three lectures took place in the UK, but the last was in Washington DC. Like the lecture in London, this enabled people of power to participate in the discussion after the lecture, I don’t know that this is a great way of enhancing the discussion.

Listening to Sandel’s lecture reminded me of the South Park co-creator Matt Stone’s famous comment, ‘I hate conservatives,but I really f***ing hate liberals (liberal in the US sense of left wing/social democrat)’. Listening to the first question from a Republican led me to reverse this to ‘I hate social democrats, but I really f***ing hate conservatives’. Sandel’s argument and level of argument was truly sad, a series of sneers at straw man arguments, while arguing for more morality and high public purpose in politics. What this means in practice for Sandel is a return to pre-1980s social democracy. It was manipulative and sanctimonious rhetoric, delivered it must also be said with affable good humour.

My irritation with Sandel was quickly overwhelmed by my irritation with a questioner from the Republican Party. He started by saying ‘we Republicans’ as if all members of the Republican Party thought the same way. Last time I checked it was a mixture of Theocon Christian Conservatives. Neo-Conservative strong state international interventionists, Plaeocon weak state isolationists, libertarians, moderates and no doubt some other strands and shades. He moved onto claiming that America is unique in allowing anyone from anywhere to succeed. What does Johnny Rep think goes on in Europe, serfdom? Immigration flows into Europe are comparable with the United States as is social mobility, off hand I can think of at least one European country with greater social mobility (Sweden). Sandel’s social democratic sanctimoniousness versus Republican delusions of national uniqueness and grandeur taken to be uniquely represented by that one political party, not much of a choice. Fortunately the following questions were less absurd.

Returning to Sandel’s talk, he referred to ‘market fundamentalism’ and ‘market triumphalism’. I have referred before on this blog to ‘The Myth of Bush the Economic Libertarian’ (check archive), it really is a myth. Defence and non-defence spending shot up under Bush. The volume of economic regulation, the expense of economic regulation and the number of people employed in economic regulation also shot up.

Sandel traced this ‘market fundamentalism’ back to Reagan and Thatcher. Here there is some truth in referring to market oriented changes: Thatcher squeezed high inflation out of the economy. privatised, reduced public spending as a proportion of national wealth (though public spending kept increasing in real terms, just more slowly than economic growth), reduced the legal privileges of trade unions; Reagan also squeezed out high inflation, held back non-defence spending (but this was compensated by high defence spending) and removed some of the more intrusive aspects of economic regulation, though the volume of regulations continued to increased as it did under Thatcher.

The reduction in public spending as a proportion of the economy under Thatcher still left it at just under 40%. How is this market fundamentalism when public spending is nearly 40% of national wealth? This is much higher than Conservative and Labour governments earlier in the 20th Century. In the 19th Century public spending was often about 10%. Part of what Sandel means by ‘market fundamentalism’ is governments mimicking market behaviour when managing public services. He did not say too much about what this entails, what it entails is the following: more choice for users of public services, more competition between providers of public services, finding ways of pushing providers to provider better services for less cost which is what the market does on its own in the private sector. In what way is this an attack on public services or market fundamentalism? Such policies make public services more affordable and therefore secure. The real free market small state ‘fundamentalists’ do not want to make public services more secure by reforming then, they want to reduced and abolish them.

Sandel traced ‘market fundamentalism’ back to the technocratic fantasies of a politics without ideology pure concerned with technical choices, which did sometimes surface in the post World War Two era. However, the two politicians Sandel quoted, the UK Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and the US President John F. Kennedy in no way consistently followed such rhetoric. Kennedy famously emphasised civic virtue, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do dor your country’, the sort of thing Sandel apparently advocates.

The criticism of ‘market fundamentalism’ was supported by attacks on cost-benefit analysis, though this is a completely different issue. A social democratic, even socialist, state needs to engage in such calculations, and in fact rather more of them as they refer to the public sector as they want a large public sector. Sandel looked for cheap laughs by finding a couple of silly sounding examples of cost benefit analysis: a cigarette company which pointed out to the Czech government that cigarettes reduce public spending because they lead to earlier deaths, reducing the number of people living on state pensions or dependent on long term care in state hospitals and homes for the elderly; someone in the US who tried to quantify the risks of using particle accelerators by putting a price on the destruction of the human race (there is a vanishingly small possibility that a particle accelerator could destroy the Earth). The cigarette company was lobbying against high taxes of cigarettes. It would in the end be obnoxious to argue that the smoking is good because of the reduced costs to the tax payer of killing some people off younger, but should we ignore the reality that smoking does save public money? Taxes on tobacco and other restrictions on tobacco are sometimes presented as saving public health spending. This is a dishonest argument and should be exposed. If we follow Sandel we will not uncover such dishonesty. There are other reasons for taxing tobacco and restricting its public consumption, and those should be discussed on their own merits. The pricing of the end of the world sounds weird but so what? Adventurous social science applied to public policy should sound weird. If anyone is arguing that we should only judge the danger of the end of the world with reference to a notional cash cost, that would be highly unsatisfactory but I doubt anyone is, and if anyone is eccentric enough to do so well good luck to them in their brave eccentricity. In the end what Sandel is doing is trying to ridicule attempts to put our intuitions about morality and public policy into an analysis of good and bad consequences. This is philistine and anti-intellectual. I don’t know of anyone who thinks this can replace moral judgement, but surely moral judgements should be informed by awareness of cost-benefit analysis. As Sandel rightly points out, cost-benefit analysis itself is variable and should not be treated as absolute knowledge, but who is saying otherwise? Like all scientific endeavour, cost benefit analysis is fallible and is an evolving enterprise, that is not a reason for abandoning it. Sandel may not wish to abandon it, he certainly wishes to reduce itwhich is an appeal to irrationalism, just as bad as those who say Darwinianism or earth sciences must be false if they contradict the literal reading of religious texts.

What Sandel offers as a substitute, or a superior instance, in relation to free markets and cost-benefit analysis is public goods and public morality. This is a false dichotomy, if public services are run according to command and control planning then they will not deliver a good service to the public. Sandel is very distrurbed by individuals using private services instead of public services, and that includes using a private gym instead of public sporting facilities. Increasing prosperity makes it inevitable over time that an increasing number of individuals will be able to purchase private substitutes for public services. In doing so they are reducing the burden on tax payers who finance public services and increase their own choice. By spending their own money and making their own choices they foster innovation and competition between providers to improve choice, quality and prices, These are public goods in the end, though they arise from private individual actions. They do not reduce public money to assist the poorest, they increase the amount of public money available to relieve poverty and exclusion from the social mainstream. Exactly why should public money go into crowding private choices out of the market instead of helping the poorest?

Sandel’s desire that everyone should only use public services in their lives is authoritarian, trying to restrict choices available to individuals, and based on a completely different set of considerations about the value of participation in public political life. I share Sandel’s concerns, as did the British Thatcherites in the 80s who thought government was so involved in the minutiae of managing the public sector that it had lost the great qualities of 19th Century democracy in Britain, when Parliament debated great issues of state, and the public was much more willing to go to political meetings and participate in the political life in the nation. There are some things I don’t like about Thatcherism (social conservatism, nationalist egomania, centralising and authoritarian actions, a tendency to value polarisation) but they were right about that. Is the wish to move politics from the details of public administration to major public issues a ‘right wing’ concern? Check the online essay by the (very moderate) Marxist Jürgen Habermas, ‘Law and Morality’, exactly the same concerns.

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