Academic rock star and public philosopher Michael
Sandel on the moral limits of the market, and why AAP may be good for us.
Michael Sandel, professor of philosophy at Harvard, is described as a 'rock
star' for the crowds of thousand plus students he draws at Harvard each year;
for the Koreans who come to listen to him by the stadium-full; and the Chinese
who invite him to speak at their universities each year, or the attentive hordes
in Brazil, Japan, and increasingly now in India.
person, Sandel is more Phil Collins than Axl Rose. For those who have watched
his series of Harvard lectures, Justice, online, the initial tentativeness comes
as a bit of a surprise. But Sandel's mild demeanour is misleading. He routinely
weighs in against "imperialist economists" (his terminology) like Lawrence
Summers; among those whom he advises (discreetly) are Rahul Gandhi and leader of
the British Labour Party Ed Miliband, both policy wonks, and possible future
prime ministers. He argues passionately about the moral limits of a
market-driven society, tackling complex issues of justice and ethics and values
clearly and engagingly. That so many around the world, especially the young,
find resonance in what he says, points to the lack of debate on the big
questions of our time.
scholar Sandel, 61, is in Mumbai to promote his new book, What Money can't Buy: The Moral
Limits of Markets, and
will be speaking at an Asia Society event later this evening to an audience that
will no doubt have many a quibble with him.
Q: I bring up fault lines because in India, or say in a city like Mumbai,
the disparities have always existed but this disengagement between the wealthy
and the poor has gone fathoms deep. While politically everybody in India has a
franchise, and socially there have been inequalities but they are historical
owing to reasons of caste. But this new sharpened economic disparity, manifest
say in the rise of gated communities, points to a near horror of the poor. Do
you see this in other developing countries as well?
A: This is one of
the most corrosive effects of marketization of life that we've experienced in
the last few decades. There has always been a gap between the rich and the poor,
but there is something distinctive about the erosion of the moral and civic
fabric that we are seeing today as a result of more and more markets in everyday
life. Towards the end of my book I talk about this tendency in the US-- the loss
of class mixing institutions and common spaces, and how one can see this in
sport. I am a great baseball fan, though I know I should be a cricket fan
instead (smiles)...When I was young and would go to see a baseball game there
were box seats and cheaper seats but there was not such a big difference between
prices. So going to sports stadium was a kind of civic, class mixing experience
where people mingled but that's changed and now most sports stadiums have built
sky boxes up above for the elite. This is a symbol of something bigger that's
happening in our societies. I describe this as the sky boxification of life. The
growing separation between rich and poor in the ordinary activities of daily
life. That's what's distinctive--less and less co-mingling. This is damaging, I
think, to democracy because democracy does not require perfect equality, but it
does require that people from different backgrounds and walks of life at least
encounter one another in certain common spaces.
Q: Yes, but if does not
happen, how exactly does it damage democracy?
A: Because we gradually
lose the sense that we are in this together. We lose the sense that we have
mutual obligations to one another by virtue of living in the same country, the
same community. The moral and social fabric is gradually eroded by rampant
marketization that often destroys public spaces where people mingle. It erodes
the sense of belonging, the shared identity that democracy requires.