The Harvard philosopher and ‘moral rock star’ on Obama, education’s new frontiers and the shortcomings of markets
©Luke WallerA youthful 60, with mildly thinning hair, Michael Sandel is dressed in the garb of the academic: slacks, light blue shirt, drab jacket and no tie. There is little about his slight build and gentle mien to suggest he commands the kind of audiences usually associated with thriller writers or TV anchors. If you had to pick the celebrity from a line-up of scholars, Sandel would get away with it.
I had recently caught a glimpse of the philosopher at the annual literary festival in Jaipur, where he spoke about whether rape should be treated as a special crime after the gruesome murder of a young woman in Delhi last year. Presiding over a sea of colourful saris and tunics, Sandel came across as half-geek, half-guru. For a man who has been dubbed by the US media the world’s first “moral rock star”, it was a modest showing – a mere 5,000 Indians had gathered to hear him. Compared with the 14,000 he had drawn to an open-air sports stadium in South Korea a few weeks before, or the 30m hits he has received for his online lectures in China alone, it was small chapattis. But the lecture, which Sandel staged as a kind of Socratic dialogue with his audience, held everyone spellbound.
Coming from solid middle class background and raised in Minnesota and Los Angeles, Sandel studied at Brandeis University and then got a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he discovered his passion for moral philosophy. He never looked back. He has taught at Harvard for most of his adult life and lives with his wife and two sons in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside Boston.
The philosopher made his reputation in 1982 with his debut book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, a powerful critique of John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance”. Rawls was the giant of postwar US liberal philosophy. But it was only in the 1990s, when Sandel started his “Justice” lecture series at Harvard, that he began to acquire a broader following.
Lunch with the FT
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It takes me a minute or two to adjust to the unassuming – almost mouse-like – professor sitting opposite me. We have taken a booth at Legal Sea Foods, a fish restaurant in Harvard Square, Boston, that is a short walk from Sandel’s faculty. It is part of a middle-market chain of fish restaurants. “I wanted you to experience real New England cooking,” says Sandel.
It is a bitingly cold late winter’s day and both of us are craving something hot. We order straight away: Sandel chooses a tuna burger and a small Caesar salad; I order a mug of lobster bisque and fish and chips. I apologise for the Britishness of my choice. “You can’t go wrong with fish and chips,” Sandel says. In spite of the temperature outside, we both stick to the glasses of heavily iced water before us. “Oh, no, no, I won’t,” says Sandel looking mildly perturbed when I ask if he wants a glass of wine with his burger.
I remind Sandel of his lecture at Jaipur. Does that type of reception still have the capacity to surprise him? “The short answer is that it kind of amazes me there would be such interest in books about philosophy around the world,” he says, before pausing a little awkwardly. He seems reluctant to discuss the reasons behind his popularity. I press on, and ask about the high-tech lecture he gave in Korea. Sandel nods enthusiastically. “It was in a beautiful set-up as the sun was setting, and then complete darkness. The upper stadium lit up, and the giant screen had translations running at the top,” he says, using his arms to indicate the scale of the event.
“I threw out questions and the audience’s images were projected because there were many, many cameras and they could see who was responding, and, if I called on another student on the other side to respond, you could see them responding to each other.”
I ask him about his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Penguin), in which he argues that the US and other countries are turning from market economies into market societies, as Lionel Jospin, the former French prime minister, once put it. Sandel argues that we live in a time of deepening “market faith” in which fewer and fewer exceptions are permitted to the prevailing culture of transaction. The book has infuriated some economists, whom he sees as practitioners of a “spurious science”.
He has been at loggerheads with the profession for many years. In 1997, he enraged economists when he attacked the Kyoto protocol on global warming as having removed “moral stigma” from bad activity by turning the right to pollute into a tradeable permit. Economists said he misunderstood why markets work. Sandel retorts that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. To judge by his sellout lecture tours, he has clearly tapped into a larger disquiet about the commodification of life.
Which countries are the least receptive to his concerns about market fundamentalism? “China and the US – no question,” he replies instantly. “In other parts of east Asia, in Europe and in the UK and in India and Brazil, it goes without arguing that there are moral limits to markets and the question is where to locate them. In the US and China, there are strong voices who will challenge the whole idea of there being any limits.”
Sandel’s method is to probe audiences for where those might be. In China, he explains, people tend to draw the line at train-ticket scalping (reselling tickets for profit) during the Lunar New Year, when almost everyone travels home to their ancestral village. In the US, people recoil when confronted with the idea of markets intruding on “family issues”, as Sandel puts it, such as surrogate motherhood, or to the prospect of a free market in votes. “It is a question of locating people’s boundaries,” he says.
We are now on our main courses. I have resumed my industrious eating while Sandel makes only occasional prods at his burger. “Right at the heart of market thinking is the idea that if two consenting adults have a deal, there is no need for others to figure out whether they valued that exchange properly,” he continues. “It’s the non-judgmental appeal of market reasoning that I think helped deepen its hold on public life and made it more than just an economic tool; it has elevated it into an unspoken public philosophy of everything.”
Sandel mentions that, in 2005, he took part in a joint lecture series on “globalisation and its critics” with Lawrence Summers, then Harvard’s president, now back there as a professor having served in between as Barack Obama’s senior economic adviser. Sandel and Summers, who are also neighbours, clearly disagreed on where, or whether, to draw the line on economic reasoning. Their debates were a blowout. There was not a spare seat to be found in the Sanders Theatre. “Look, some of my best friends are imperialist economists,” says Sandel, half-smiling. “But they tend to see everything through their own lens.”
Fair enough, I respond. But isn’t it quixotic to suppose the political debate can be “remoralised” in the way Sandel is hoping? And shouldn’t we be careful what we wish for? There is, I say, a thin line between promoting virtue and practising tyranny. “It’s an open question,” Sandel disarmingly concedes. Then he gives me a quick sketch of “the rise of market reasoning”, from the triumphalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher through Bill Clinton and Tony Blair up to the present day. “What Blair and Clinton did – and I’m using them not to blame them but as emblematic of this tendency – was they moderated but also consolidated the assumption that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the good life,” he says. “So we never really had a debate.”
Still gently toying with his burger, Sandel’s tone takes on a note of regretfulness when I mention Obama, who in the philosopher’s view has promised so much and delivered so little. “During the healthcare debate in 2009 there was a long angry summer. I was listening to Obama on C-Span and I heard him make the case for healthcare reform by saying we have to ‘bend the cost curve in the out years’. I cringed because I thought that if that’s the way he’s trying to sell healthcare, he will never succeed.
“Later in the fall, Obama did recover his footing to some degree and he quoted Ted Kennedy, who did make a moral argument and not a technocratic one for healthcare. So he is capable of speaking a larger language but it’s been strikingly muted during his first term.”
. . .
Our plates having been cleared – mine clean, his half-finished – Sandel orders a skimmed latte with chocolate syrup on the side. I go for a double espresso. I confess that I am pretty hazy about the practical implications of what he is saying. Can he give an example of a specific change he would like to see that would put economics in its place? What he had just said about Obama sounded more like a critique of the White House communications strategy than of the policy itself, I add. Again, Sandel starts by politely agreeing with my premise. He says he is worried that in the US the language of values is monopolised by the Christian right, which focuses on personal issues such as abortion. Others, he says, should recapture the language of values and extend it to the economy.
But what kind of change would that lead to? I ask, hoping for something more concrete. “I think you could say that the weakness of my argument is that I’m arguing against an overarching singular way of thinking about all questions – ‘an economic way of looking at life’, as Gary Becker [the Chicago economist and Nobel Prize winner] described it,” Sandel replies. “I’m arguing against that not by putting my own overarching singular philosophy but by saying that is a mistake and we must value goods case by case. So the answer may be one thing on the environment and the right way of dealing with nature, and a different one with education and on whether we should offer financial incentive to kids to do their homework, for example, and different still if we’re arguing against a free market in kidneys and surrogate pregnancy.”
Still not entirely convinced, I ask Sandel whether he does anything in his own life to make the world less money-minded. He begins a couple of answers but peters out. I suggest that he makes all his lectures free online. “Yes, that’s one thing,” he agrees. After our lunch I see that Sandel is listed on Royce Carlton, a speaker’s agency, as one of its big names (without apparent irony, a posting by the agency last year said Sandel was available to lecture “at a reduced fee in conjunction with his new book, What Money Can’t Buy”).
But it is talking about the free stuff that gets him going. Sandel says he was recently approached by a Silicon Valley tech company, which he did not name, that has developed the technology to support interactive global lectures. He recently did a pilot run with simultaneous live audiences in Cambridge Massachusetts, Rio de Janeiro, New Delhi, Shanghai and Tokyo. Cisco TelePresence charges hundreds of thousands of dollars per session, says Sandel. This new method costs only a couple of thousand. The drop in price could change everything. “We could see them and they could see us. I could call out to a student in Delhi, and ask a student in the fifth row of a theatre in Harvard to reply to someone in São Paulo and someone in Shanghai – and it worked. The technology worked.”
Sandel confesses he would happily go on chatting about education’s new frontiers for as long as I want – but that would be a good while and I am in danger of missing my flight. The bill settled, Sandel kindly accompanies me on a hunt for a taxi outside. As we walk, he tells me of a recent conversation he had with Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and likely future prime minister of India. “Gandhi was really excited about the possibilities of online education,” he says. “He told me: ‘We could never put all these people in universities. The internet is the answer.’ I was struck by how excited he was.”
As I get into the cab, it is Sandel’s enthusiasm that strikes me. The world may be in thrall to Sandel’s “imperialist economists”, I muse en route to the airport. But there is a living to be made in the resistance.
Edward Luce is the FT’s Washington columnist and commentator