Philosophers in Politics: Michael Sandel speaks at Labour Party Conference

The well known Harvard political philosopher, Michael Sandel, spoke at this week’s British Labour Party conference in Manchester.  Not at some fringe meeting to discuss socialist and social democratic philosophy, but in the main conference hall under the eye of the party leader and what is know in the UK as The Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, that is he is leader of the second largest party in the House of Commons.   Miliband was on sabbatical from a ministerial job at Harvard during 2002, which presumably had something to do with inviting Sandel to a party conference in the north west of England.  

Sandel made his name in political philosophy with his 1982 book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, which is not a book for those with no prior experience of difficult texts in political theory.  It criticises the liberalism of John Rawls, as put forward in the highly influential 1971 book A Theory of Justice.  Sandel does not disagree with Rawls’ inclination towards a form of liberalism which minimises economic equality, as far as considerations of individual liberty and economic growth allow.  What Sandel takes Rawls to task for is a failure to put social justice on a stronger moral foundation than liberal individualism allows.  He advocates a communal ethic as a basis for political principles.  This way of thinking is known as communitarianism.  Communitarianism has strong precedents in 19th Hegelianism, particularly in the work of the British philosopher T.H. Green who was active in Liberal politics.  Green is a hero for those who favour a left leaning version of liberalism, which has some common ground with social democrats and socialists.  Sandel does not appear to have much interest in Hegel, but  may have been influenced by the communitarianism of Charles Taylor who did write a book on Hegel.  

Sandel has branched out into more public and popular forms of communication since Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.  His Harvard course on Justice, attended by about a thousand students every year can be found on YouTube and iTunes.  He served on a government bioethics committee under George W. Bush.  Sandel gave the BBC Reith lectures for 2009.  Podcasts here.  Transcript here.  Those lectures were a digested form of his recent book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.  He was clearly working on this relatively populist book for some time, as he gave the Tanner Lectures of 1998 under that title.  A book length pdf can be found here.   The point of all this talk about limits to markets (following on from a starting interest in limits of justice) is that Sandel thinks market relations have gone too far, and should be more constrained by considerations of equality, community values, and the value of what money cannot buy.  Not my position, though of course there should be limits to the power of money.  No one has seriously argued that money can and should buy everything, even if some people like to imagine that is what free market libertarians are arguing.  The problem with Sandel’s position is that he is arguing for coercive state power to prevent individuals from making their own choices about the limits of commercial transactions.  We all have our own boundaries and perhaps we could stand more free to determine them, within the limits of where  clear harms to others result.  Sandel’s fight against excessive market domination of society includes the promotion  of his book at the Labour Party event, some might sense a contradiction there.  

So I am not advocating Sandel or the Labour Party.  I am a member of the Liberal Democrats.  Many of the more left leaning members of the Liberal Democrats would like  most of what Sandel say, but would probably put more emphasis on individualism and be a bit less inclined to social conservatism.  I am part of the more pro maret and small government wings of the LDs.    The political philosophers I agree with most who are around at present are Jerry Gaus, David Schmidtz, and John Tomasi.  Search the blog for references to ‘Rawlsekians’ for more information.  I could also add Samuel Fleischacker.  Though in terms of the style of writing political theory I am most attracted to Alisdair MacIntyre, a communitarian of a much more conservative kind than Sandel, though in general communitarians are more socially conservative than many liberals, or libertarians.  

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