It’s a trivial time when “rock star moralist” is not a tautology but that’s the tag the compassionate culturati have attached to Michael Sandel, who headlines the Sydney Writers Festival on Wednesday. [i]

The job description made the Crows cautious. Moralists tend to apply, indeed impose, their own codes on the rest of us, not out of arrogance you understand, just in case we are not as ethically endowed as they are.

Sandel has built a successful career explaining morality, at least his ideas on it, to the masses. Some 15,000 Harvard students have taken his course titled “Justice” which he adapted into a 12 part TV series.[ii]  He is accordingly adored by the compassionistas (black-hearted reactionaries rarely appear at the SWF), as the “master of life’s big questions”.[iii]

So the Crows, thinking they might find moral improvement in his work, read Sandel’s recent What money can’t buy. [iv]

In this case, it certainly can’t buy compelling argument. Sandel’s modus operandi is socratic, asking his audience to consider morally challenging issues. You can watch him in action online and he does the same, sort of, here – presenting moral challenges and setting out the case for and against.[v] But the argument is never in doubt given Sandel starts by assuming market economics have permeated society to such an extent that morality is debased.

 The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold and which should be governed by non-market values. Where should money’s writ not run? [vi]

 Sandel, what a surprise, has answers to all these questions which he seeks to set out in the book.  But not with a whole heap of success, because his subject is less the mechanism of the market, the voluntary exchange of benefits between willing individuals and organisations, than the forms of corruption the flesh is heir to.  

The problem is that Sandel seems to assume the market is a construction of the greedy rather than a natural process. He is not alone in this.  Despite Kelsey Munro gushing on about Sandel’s ideas and suggesting his is a “lonely voice against the reign of economic rationalism”, in fact his is the orthodoxy holding that markets oppress the poor.[vii]

As Wiliam Dugger argued 25 years ago:

 The market economy is a discretionary economy, a product of human will. It is not an automatic economy, a product of divine dispensation. The market economy can be changed through collective action. Its results, when undesirable, need not be fatalistically accepted by those adversely affected. At least that is the case when the two faces of the market are clearly distinguished. One face of the market is enabling myth; the other face is instituted process. As enabling myth, the market is an agent of elite social control. But as instituted process, the market can be an instrument of democratic policy. Benefits and costs can be redistributed. Winners and losers can change places. The rules can be reformed, even transformed. The markets we use can be modified so much that they become something other than the ‘market system’ as we know it.”[viii]

 While the Crows would not attend a SWF event, for fear of having their feathers plucked, they suspect Professor Sandel’s audience will agree and point to the Global Financial Crisis as an example of an agency of social control being stuffed up.

Which rather makes the point, just not the one market critics claim. As the US Government inquiry into the near collapse of the US banking system in 2008 showed, the crisis was not caused by the market, but by avaricious and incompetent shonks and spivs and the failure of the regulators to stop them perverting the free operation of exchange between equally informed buyers and sellers.[ix]

The problem with the idea that the GFC proves markets are either optional or unjust is that it imposes a value judgement on a natural process. Like it not, people always exchange goods and services – the injustice occurs when the greedy and powerful pervert the process.

Professor Sandel points to practices he abhors, trade in human organs, exclusive seats at the baseball and etc, but what he deplores is human behaviour, greed and elitism rather than a mechanism of exchange. Did men make markets or did markets make men is the question?

Sandel suggests the second. The consequence is a cruel world where the interests of the poor are unprotected and the rich use economic power to manipulate everybody else. As for the state, well government is the good guy overwhelmed by the avaricious.

Thus, he complains about ticket scalping to a publicly funded Shakespeare series suggesting this is unjust to poor theatre fans and defeats the purpose of the performances which are “a gift the city gives itself”. This rather misses the point that the series is in fact a gift the taxpayers give to everybody – but the inequity of the state providing a service funded by some for the benefit of all does not occur to Professor Sandel in this case.

“If you agree that buying and selling certain goods corrupts and degrades them, then you must believe that some ways of valuing those goods are more appropriate than others,” he writes. The problem is that, in everything from sports seats to healthcare, Sandel knows what he does not like but offers no superior system of distributing resources where demand exceeds supply.

Which makes much of this book a hand-wringing exercise in futile complaint, rather an exploration of ideas on how to better organise society. It is the complaint that makes the book a hit with everybody who equates the high-taxing state with virtue and market based solutions that empower individuals to make their own decisions with corruption. 

As Sandel puts it; “The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance. Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and practises we prize.” [x]

Um, please professor who is “we”? The answer is sadly obvious – Professor Sandel and everybody who agrees with him. This is a book for the comfortably affluent, who can deplore people selling organs, because they have never faced the possibility of having to save their family through self-sacrifice. It is a book for people who will deny others the right to make their own decisions because they know, they just know, the poor are coerced and advocates of free exchange are corrupt. It is a book for those who know they are right, because their sense of moral superiority demonstrates they are, well, superior.

Or, as the marvellous Deirdre McCloskey puts it, “[Sandel’s] moral thoughts in fact are two only, and thin versions even of these: that equality is good; and that the sacred can be corrupted by the profane.[xi]

This is a splendid book for moralising but it doesn’t actually help anybody.



[ii] Harvard University, Department of Government, “About the department,” @ http://www.gov.harvard.edu/people/faculty/michael-sandel recovered on May 18, “About Michael Sandel”, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/pages/Michael-Sandel/109299192430241# recovered on May 18

[iii] Andrew Anthony, “Michael Sandel: master of life’s big questions,” The Observer April 8 2012

[iv] Roger J Sandel, What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets (Penguin, 2012)

[v] Harvard University, “Justice with Michael Sandel,” @ iTunes > Harvard University

[vi] Sandel, op cit 11

[vii] Kelsey Munro, “Beware the intrusion of the market,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 18

[viii] William M Dugger, “Instituted process and enabling myth: the two faces of the market,” Journal of Economic Issues, XXIII, 2 June 1989, 607-614, 614

[ix] United States Government, Final report of the national commission on the economic crisis in the United States (Kindle edition, 2011)

[x] Sandel op cit 202

[xi] Deirdre N McCloskey, “The poverty of communitarianism,” Claremont Review of Books, November 27 2012 @ http://www.claremont.org/publications/crb/id.2027/article_detail.asp recovered on May