Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Reith lectures 2009: A new citizenship


   The latest round of Reith Lectures are being presented by political philosopher Michael Sandel (apparently inspiration for Montgomery Burns in the Simpsons) and deal with the ‘politics of the common good’.

Sandel suggests that we need to develop a better kind of politics less oriented to the pursuit of individual self-interest and based more on deeper moral and spiritual values, and a more demanding idea of what it means to be a citizen.

In the first lecture, ‘Markets and Morals’, he deals with the moral limits of markets. There is now widespread recognition that markets have become detached from, and need to be reconnected to, our fundamental values in order to play a role in achieving the public good.

Sandel argues that the problem isn’t excess greed within markets, as there is no real difference between this and self-interest and markets have always run on self-interest. So rather that try to rein in greed by shoring up values of responsibility and trust, integrity and fair dealing, we simply need to re-think the reach of markets into spheres of life where they don’t belong – where we are dealing with things that money can’t buy and other things that money can buy but shouldn’t.

This includes things like or profit schools, hospitals and prisons; the outsourcing of war to private military contractors and the replacement of public police forces by private security firms. But these pseudo markets don’t always work.

So one suggestion by the father of the HCM movement, Gary Becker, to resolve the debate over US immigration is to simply set a price and sell American citizenship. But a market in refugee status changes our view about who refugees are and how they should be treated. “It encourages the participants - the buyers, the sellers and also those whose asylum is being haggled over - to think of refugees as burdens to be unloaded or as revenue sources rather than as human beings in peril.”

Or take the attempt by some New York City schools to improve academic performance by paying children 50 dollars if they get good scores on standardised tests. The problem is that monetary incentives like this can undermine intrinsic motivations for reading, habituating children to think of reading books as a way of making money, rather than something they can enjoy

Sandel summarises his argument by explaining: “Markets are not mere mechanisms. They presuppose, and also promote, certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged. Markets leave their mark on social norms.”

I think Sandel makes some very sound and well argued points and perhaps the one disagreement I have with him is over the scope of his argument. He proposes that we need to think about limiting the application of markets, eg to health, education, national defence, criminal justice, environmental protection and so on - to guard against our market economies becoming market societies (although he does say that he wants all markets to be answerable to ethical principles and to principles of social justice).

I think we also need to consider the utility of real markets (eg to employment).

For example, Sandel’s arguments seem to me to help explain the recent public reaction to bankers’ bonuses as well as previously topical debates about non-doms etc.

These debates don’t just involve economic questions, they consist of social or political ones as well. Yes, we want an economy where entrepreneurship and enterprise are valued, but we also recognise that too much inequality is not an outcome that we want.

We’re happy to see people paid high rewards where these reflect real success, and where we can see that these rewards will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the economy as well.  But when these people complain that they’ll leave the country when a 50% tax rate is introduced, or their non-UK income will become assessable for tax, it shows that they don’t share any ownership for the ‘common good’.

And I think it is then that the general population responds that it doesn’t want people rewarded in this way.  The economic argument no longer covers the moral compromise.

So there are “perils in reducing moral considerations to economic ones” within markets as well.



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