‘We must search for ways to become citizens, not just consumers’

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Michael J Sandel | 60 | Political Philosopher and Author
Michael J Sandel | 60 |
Political Philosopher and Author

Edited Excerpts from an interview

What is the difference between a market economy and a market society?
In recent decades, we have drifted, almost without realising it, from having a market economy to becoming market societies. The difference is this: a market economy is a tool — a valuable and effective tool — for organising productive activity. But a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale. It is a way of life, in which money and market values dominate every aspect of life — not only material goods, but family life and personal relationships; health and education; politics and civic life. What Money Can’t Buy does not argue against a market economy; it argues that we need to keep markets in their proper place.

You speak of the shift in the political classes during 1980s-’90s where the market became the primary means for achieving public good. This resulted in the mushrooming of for-profit schools, hospitals, prisons and even wars. We are witnessing something similar in India. The government is unable to meet the demands of the people. So despite collecting taxes it is turning to the private sector. Why does this happen?
Yes, since the 1980s and ’90s, we have seen the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals and prisons. Increasingly, we even outsource war to private companies. In some cases, the private sector can provide public services more efficiently than government bureaucracies. So we should not reflexively reject any and all attempts to deliver public services through the use of market mechanisms. But in societies with deep inequalities, it is important to ensure that the poor are not deprived of access to essential public services. The profit motive can be a spur to efficiency, but it can also lead to social and economic exclusion. The more things money can buy, the more affluence — or the lack of it — matters. Under conditions of deep and persistent inequality, putting a price on everything, including essential human needs, sharpens the sting of inequality, and makes it harder to be poor.

In your book, you have argued that it is the middle class and the economically weaker sections of society that have suffered most since the emergence of a market society. While numerically the financial elite forms the small minority, why is it that these classes who form a majority are trapped by this system when they form the electoral bulk in a democratic country?
It’s a good question. In most democratic societies, it is difficult to prevent wealth from dominating the political system. The principle of “one person, one vote” is undermined, to a considerable extent, by the ability of powerful interests to dominate politics. In the US, laws designed to restrict unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and the wealthy were struck down by the Supreme Court. Other countries also struggle with this problem. I don’t think we will solve it until we as citizens, acting together within civil society, find ways of limiting the power of money in politics.

You talk of people putting a price on their time as individuals, spending money to save time and avoid hassles. Some would ask why not? If an individual has to travel between cities, and they have the means, why shouldn’t they fly and pay extra for perks? If they don’t have the means, they could take a train or a bus. Isn’t it only fair considering even the wealthy, in many cases, work hard for their money?
In many contexts, there is nothing wrong with spending money to save time and inconvenience. Flying, rather than taking a train or a bus, is a good example. People who pay extra, or who buy an expensive ticket for a flight, may get perks such as early boarding or free drinks on the plane. This is simply a matter of paying a premium for better service. Suppose we are not talking about various means of travel between cities, but, instead about access to political office or influence — should those willing to pay extra get two votes instead of one? Or be able to enter a special VIP queue at the polling place? Whether money should be allowed to buy better or quicker access to a good depends on the moral or civic significance of the good.

Your book also engages with the issue of prompt medical support coming at a price. In India, too, primary healthcare is not easily accessible to everyone. If you have the means, you can access medical care at a private hospital, if you don’t, you wait your turn. While some argue it’s because the rich earned their money the hard way, this disparity remains mostly unchallenged. What is the problem here?
Access to medical care should be determined by the medical need, and not the ability to pay. In a hospital emergency room, a wealthy person with a bad cold should not be able to pay extra to be diagnosed ahead of a poor person with a life-threatening injury. Most people would find ticket-touting (or ticket “scalping”) for medical appointments to be morally troubling. But this raises a hard question: why then do we consider it morally permissible for people to pay extra and be treated in a private hospital? Perhaps the moral status of private hospitals depends on whether the poor have access to decent, basic medical care. If everyone has access to essential medical treatment, then allowing people to buy superior medical care is easier to defend.

Could you elaborate on the fight between the ‘democracy of the line’ (equal opportunity) and the idea that you get what you pay for?
Money is not the only way of determining access to goods. Some goods, like university admissions, we allocate according to merit rather than money. A wealthy parent should not be able to “buy” a place in a top school for his or her child. We consider that academic merit and qualifications should determine who is admitted to the best universities. Beyond money and merit is a third principle: first come, first served. This is the ethic of the queue. Money, merit, and waiting — these are three principles that govern the distribution of social goods. Increasingly, money dominates and crowds out the principles of merit and waiting. In airports and amusements parks, even at temples and shrines, the principle of the queue (“Wait your turn”) is being displaced by the principle of money (“You get what you pay for”) Waiting in line is no fun. But it is a democratic virtue. It reminds us that we are all in this together. In the “Fast-track,” “VIP-line” societies we inhabit, it becomes more and more difficult to remember that we are citizens who share a common life and who have responsibilities to the least advantaged members of society.

In the book, you have argued that some things should not be for sale. You’ve given the example of Pope Benedict XVI’s open mass, where people sold tickets when there weren’t any. In India, too, you can pay to get access to temples and it is often acceptable. Who draws these ethical lines and how can they be enforced?
It isn’t easy to draw lines. In pluralist societies, people disagree about what should and what should not be up for sale. I’ve read about the controversy over VIP tickets at the Tirupati temple. Should the wealthy be able to buy their way to the front of the queue? What about government officials or Bollywood stars? Or should no one be able to gain access to a VIP darshan? To answer this, we have to think through the social meaning and significance of the social practice. Surely, there is a difference between access to a temple and access to a cricket match, or to a hospital, a rock concert, or a papal mass. This points to the fact that in order to decide where money and markets belong, and where they don’t, we have to engage in public debates about how to value social goods and practices. This means we cannot avoid engaging with ethical questions in public discourse, controversial though they may be.

You mention financial incentives in education — money for better grades and to read. In India, we offer mid-day meals as incentives. Could you explain why such these incentives have failed in some cases and worked in others? What is the long-term negative impact of having such an incentivised system in other fields?
Not all incentives are alike. Some are effective in achieving their aims, others not. And some may be morally corrosive. A mid-day meal may be an effective incentive for children to attend school, and for their parents to send them to school. This incentive is not corrupting of education; on the contrary, it makes it more likely that students from poor backgrounds will attend school. But paying kids to get good grades, or to read books, may actually make it harder for them to acquire a love of learning for its own sake. This is because a cash incentive may corrupt, or crowd out, the intrinsic motivation we ultimately hope to inculcate. The risk is that paying kids to read books may teach them that reading is a chore, to be done for pay. If that’s the lesson they learn, then it may be more difficult for them to develop the habit of reading for the love of it.

You raise two fundamental objections to things that money can buy — the idea of fairness and corruption. Could you please elaborate?
Consider two familiar objections to prostitution. One is that the choice to sell one’s body for money is typically not a truly voluntary choice, but coerced by poverty, drug addiction, or the threat of violence. The same objection is sometimes raised against a free market in kidneys, or other human organs: how free is the choice by a desperately poor peasant to sell his or her kidney? This objection is based on the idea that severe inequalities undermine the voluntary character of prostitution, or organ sales. But imagine a society in which deep inequalities of income, wealth, power, and opportunity did not exist. Even in such a society, some people might object to prostitution on the grounds that it is degrading, contrary to human dignity. This is the corruption argument. It suggests that selling sex corrupts or degrades the human person. So, before deciding what goods should be bought and sold, we have to ask whether the exchange is truly voluntary, rather than coerced by desperate poverty; and whether it corrupts or degrades the meaning of the good in question — whether sex, or the integrity of the human body, or, in the case of the buying and selling of votes, the duties of citizens to act on behalf of the common good.

You quote Aristotle and Rousseau to highlight the fact that civic responsibility needs to be built — use it or lose it. Today there seems to be a massive erosion of civic responsibility, a trust deficit has been created and even the relationship between neighbours that existed earlier in urban centres is rapidly deteriorating. Why do you feel this is happening? Is it monetisation of our thinking?
Yes, I think we have seen an erosion of civic responsibility. I think, this is partly due, to the dominance of market thinking and reasoning throughout our societies. Commercialism can be corrosive of commonality. Against a background of inequality, putting a price on everything leads the affluent and the poor to live increasingly separate lives. There are fewer and fewer public spaces and common places where people from different social and economic backgrounds encounter one another. There are fewer and fewer occasions for the exercise of civic responsibility. In addition, the marketisation of public discourse encourages us to outsource our moral judgment to markets, as if markets were neutral mechanisms for determining public good. I think this way of conceiving social life and public discourse is a mistake. Markets, however efficient, cannot define justice or public good. For that, we have to reason together, as democratic citizens, about the meaning of justice and common good.

But in a such a monetised world, what can’t be bought? Why and how do we put the breaks on this materialistic trend?
Love can’t be bought, neither can friendship. But today, there are very few things that money can’t buy. And yet, in democracies around the world, people are frustrated with politicians and political parties, and with the existing terms of public discourse. People sense the hollowness, the emptiness, of prevailing public discourse. They want something better. They want politics to be about big things, including questions of ethics and values, justice and the common good. In recent years, our identity as consumers has distracted us from our identity as citizens. One of my goals in writing What Money Can’t Buy was to encourage, provoke, and inspire a public debate about the moral limits of markets, and about the ethical ideals that should govern our lives together. I think people are hungry for such a debate. In a market-driven age, we are searching for ways to become citizens, not just consumers.

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