Economics, Politics and Morality

by Ioana Paul

The pandemic is, for the privileged, a perfect moment for reflection. Reflections on the state we are in, plagued by inequalities and discrimination, on the state our burning planet is, on our values and on what got us here. It is also the perfect moment for imagination: imagining the lives we want to live from now on, imagining the way in which we want to fix the problems we have created, the way in which we want to restructure our economic and social system. Reflecting and imagining because we have not done this in such a long time and because we have to, now, before it is too late. Maybe a good way to start is by giving voice to ethics and morals, by reevaluating what we define as good and what not.

A book I have recently stumbled upon is called “Public Philosophy: Essays on the Morality in Politics”, written by Michael Sandel. Published in 2005, it is an easy yet fascinating read about morality in relation to politics, economics and the state. 2005 seems to be too far away from our tangible reality but the book is definitely important for our current times. It is divided into three parts. Each one consists of short and captivating essays.

Part one tackles the role of economic policy and criticizes the superficial political discourse which fails to address important issues such as the climate crisis and growing inequality. Sandel then analyses how applying the market mechanism to certain goods and services deprives them of their values. He argues for a different approach to economics, stating that markets and morals belong together and that economics cannot be viewed as a natural science. What I found particularly engaging is how he supports his arguments with interesting case studies. He discusses, for example, the effects of introducing a fee for picking up your child late at a kindergarten in Israel, the moral implications of refugees’ quotas or the idea of selling your voting right. These markets cannot be evaluated solely from the efficiency point of view. One needs to take into consideration the way in which putting a price on a good or service changes our perspective on the good or service that is being traded, argues Sandel. With reference to the recent political history of the U.S, the author questions the pure libertarian view and the necessity of state neutrality with respect to personal values. Should economic policy try to shape at least some of our values, or leave us decide for ourselves what we consider to be a good life?

 The second part of the book is focused on moral and political dilemmas such as abortion, the ethics of stem cell research or the debate concerning Affirmative Action/positive discrimination. In a savvy manner, he links pro and con arguments to philosophical ideals while leaving the reader with the urge to do further research on a myriad of topics.

The last part analyses the idea of liberalism in the sense of pluralism and respect for individual rights.  Sandel expresses particular uncertainty towards the idea of the law being neutral regarding competing worldviews on what living a good life actually entails. This neutrality is impossible to achieve and even damaging. Politics and morality viewed together do not contradict respect for pluralism and individual freedom, argues the author.

Michael Sandel is one of the most influential political philosophers of our times. As a professor at Harvard University, his course “Justice” is one of the most attended courses in Harvard’s history. Taught in a Socratic manner, Sandel asks intriguing questions and invites students to express their views and debate. In his view, philosophy should not just be part of the academic syllabus but introduced into the public discourse. This is why “Justice” became the first televised Harvard course. He is extremely active online, participating in various webinars which can be found on YouTube. His course “Justice” is offered on the educational platform edX, where everybody can audit the course for free and discuss the contents with people from around the world. Podcast lovers can listen to his short series called “The Public Philosopher where he evaluates controversial themes with a global audience. It’s amazing how one can have access to such a wide range of thought-provoking content with just a small click.

Should you be interested in the symbiosis between markets and morals advocated by Michael Sandel, then I highly recommend the book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets”(2012). Additionally, his most recent book “The Tyranny of Merit” (2020) is a fine critique of our meritocratic system. One of the premises is that, in the midst of a pandemic, we realize that there is a striking discrepancy between the jobs we now define as essential jobs and those to which we attribute monetary value and social recognition.

It’s surely worth it for readers to begin exploring Sandel’s ideas.You can start by watching the first episode of his “Justice” series. One video will lead you to another and, thanks to the YouTube algorithm, you will find even more interesting debates and discussions recommended just for you, ready to be clicked on. If that catches your interest, then I highly recommend delving into his books which perfectly combine politics with economics and philosophy.