Harvard professor Michael Sandel

The Harvard professor assesses whether morality is in play in U.S. markets and discusses his best-selling book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Called one of the world's most interesting political philosophers, Michael Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard University, where he's taught political philosophy since 1980. His hugely popular undergraduate course, "Justice," has enrolled over 15,000 students and is the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on public TV. He's also a best-selling author, who, in his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy, explores the moral dilemmas of a capitalistic society and the choices people face daily. A Rhodes Scholar, Sandel received his doctorate from Oxford.


Tavis: Michael Sandel is a noted Harvard professor whose popular justice class at Harvard became a hit online and for that matter, here on PBS. His latest text is once again one of those books that makes us stop and think about the times we live in. It’s called, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” Professor Sandel, good to have you on this program.

Professor Michael Sandel: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me jump right in. This title, the subtitle, at least, “The Moral Limits of Markets,” suggests on some level that morality is at play in the market, but it does have limits. I’m not sure I buy the argument.

Sandel: You’re not? Well, here’s the idea.

Tavis: I’m not sure. Maybe you can convince me that morality is somehow at play in our markets as we now know them.

Sandel: Well, there are some people who believe that whatever emerges from a free market exchange is just, is fair, and there’s no further question. I disagree. I think markets by themselves serve valuable functions. They are good at organizing productive activity, at creating economic growth, but they can’t by themselves define what’s just, what’s fair, and they are not sufficient instruments for achieving the public good.

That depends on us as democratic citizens. So we have to ask as a society where do markets serve the public good, and where do they not belong? What are the spheres of life? Markets have been reaching into spheres of life in recent decades traditionally governed by other values.

So we need to ask where do markets belong and where might they do more harm than good, crowding out other values that we care about?

Tavis: Put another way, are there any values at play in the market today other than greed, other than consumption?

Sandel: Well, the danger of extending market logic to everything – to education, to health, to personal relations, to civic life – the danger of that is that it encourages us to think of ourselves only as consumers, and that crowds out our identity as citizens.

Now, we don’t allow a free market in votes, even though some would say the system of campaign finance we have comes dangerously close to doing that. But we don’t – the markets have encroached on almost every sphere of life. We don’t allow an explicit market in votes. You might ask why. If you use the standard logic of mainstream economics, it’s hard to say why not. Half the people don’t vote, even in presidential elections. Why let their vote go to waste? Why not let them sell their votes to the highest bidder? There’d be people willing to buy them.

Yet we don’t. We don’t, because we think the vote is not a piece of personal property, it’s a public responsibility. It’s an expression of civic virtue. So what I would like to do, and one of the purposes of the book, is to invite us to ask and to argue as a society in what spheres do markets belong, and where should we keep them, market values I mean, at a certain distance.

Tavis: You just gave some examples of where we don’t allow market values to dictate. What encroachments, though, of these market values on our lives are of concern to you at the moment?

Sandel: Right. Let me start with some small examples from everyday life. More and more these days you can pay to jump to the head of the line. Take the lines at the security checkpoint in airports. Nowadays, if you buy an expensive ticket, you get to go to the head of the line.

Even if you’re flying coach, the airlines will sell you, as an a la carte perk, the right to jump to the head of the line. In amusement parks, when we were kids, part of the experience of going to an amusement park meant waiting on line with everybody else for the popular rides.

No longer. Today, if you can afford it and you don’t want to stand in the line, you can buy a ticket that lets you go to the head of the line at many amusement parks.

There are on Capitol Hill – I didn’t even know about this until I was doing the research for the book – in Washington there are line-standing companies, because Congress has a certain number of seats for the public to sit in on congressional hearings, first-come, first-serve.

Sometimes the lines are very long. Might have to wait overnight, more than a day. Lobbyists want to attend the congressional hearings, but they don’t want to stand in a long line, waiting in the rain, maybe, on the sidewalk overnight.

They hire line-standing companies that in turn hire homeless people and other people for an hourly wage to stand on the line, and just before the hearing begins, the lobbyist takes the place of his or her line-stander and marches into the hearing room.

These are small examples, but they reflect a shift in our ethic away from the idea of the democratic experience of waiting your turn toward the idea that money pays. Money can get you to the head of the line.

Tavis: To your point, these are small examples. I guess what I’m pressing now is since when have the elite, since when have the moneyed, not been able to get to the front of the line?

Sandel: Right.

Tavis: I guess put another way, what’s making this so much worse now, because the rich and the lucky have always had –

Sandel: That’s true, have always had advantages.

Tavis: Right.

Sandel: But there’s a big difference between a society where, as has always been true, those with money can buy fancy vacations and yachts and luxuries that the rest of us can’t afford. That’s always been true.

But today, money buys more and more, not only in these small places in everyday life, but access to the best healthcare. You can now jump the line to see a doctor with concierge or boutique medical practices, where the doctors reduce their patient loads to just a few and for a yearly retainer fee, $2,500, up to $25,000, you get same-day appointments and the cell phone number of your doctor.

Now, concierge medical practices – these have come in in the last few decades. It’s a more consequential form of buying your way to the head of the line. We see it in schools. We see it in the military, the growing use of markets.

In Iraq and Afghanistan there were more private military contractors on the ground than there were U.S. military troops. Now, we never had a public debate about whether we wanted to outsource war to private companies, but that’s what’s happened, and the trend toward marketizing more and more of life, putting everything up for sale, I think has been unfolding gradually over the last three decades.

We’ve shifted from having a market economy to becoming a market society. A market economy is a tool, and a valuable tool, but a market society is a place where everything is up for sale. It’s a place where market values invade every sphere of life, from personal relations to education to health to civic life to military service, for-profit prisons, another example, and this has been happening – it’s gathered force and momentum over the past three decades.

Tavis: What’s the danger for you and for us, more expressly, of this new way of life?

Sandel: Yeah, right. I think the danger is that when markets reach into places where they don’t belong, they crowd out other values. One of the most important places where this happens is that markets crowd out civic spaces and a sense of shared citizenship.

Let me give you a very concrete example. I’m a baseball fan. When I was a kid growing up, I lived in Minnesota, followed the Minnesota Twins. In those days, there were box seats and there were box seats and there were bleacher seats that were cheaper.

The difference in price between the most expensive box seat and the cheapest seat in the bleachers, what would you guess?

Tavis: Twenty-five.

Sandel: Two dollars and 50 cents.

Tavis: (Laughs) I was close, there was a two and a five there.

Sandel: Well, it’s changed. It’s because it’s changed so dramatically. Three-fifty for the best box seat, a dollar to sit in the bleachers. The effect was going to a ballgame was a class-mixing experience. CEOs and mailroom clerks sat side-by-side. Everyone waited in the same long line to go to the restroom and when it rained, everyone got wet.

Now and over the last few decades, almost all the stadiums have skyboxes, which separate the privileged fans from the masses in the seats below. So going to a baseball game is no longer the same kind of democratic, civic experience, class-mixing experience that it once was, and this is happening – this is my worry – throughout our society, with rising inequality and where money buys more and more.

We’ve experienced the skyboxification of American life. We live and work and shop and play in different places, rich and poor, I mean. We send our children to different schools.

This is what I mean by skyboxification of life. That makes it very difficult to think of ourselves as sharing a common life, and that makes it difficult to think of ourselves as democratic citizens engaged in common purposes in common projects. That’s my biggest worry.

Tavis: I’ve just come off a three-week tour talking about the issue of poverty in this country, and I was anxious to get to this conversation with you, given what your text is about, in part because if you are right, and I believe that you are, that – this is my way of saying it, not your way, necessarily – that everything and everybody is up for sale.

Sandel: Yeah.

Tavis: If everything and everybody is up for sale, then how in that space do you even get a conversation with traction about morals, about values, about ethics? It’s almost oxymoronic.

Sandel: Well, it’s hard. It’s hard to do now, because to have a serious public debate about big questions, including, I would say, big ethical questions, questions about justice and the common good, what it means to be a citizen, we have to have enough of a shared common life so that there’s enough social solidarity to care about one another.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it requires that there be enough public places and common spaces where people from different walks of life encounter one another, bump up against one another, in the ordinary course of life, because this is how we learn to negotiate our differences, and this is how we come to care for the common good.

I want to enlarge our sense, or contribute to a public debate about the big moral questions, including those to do with the structure of the economy and the question of the role and reach of markets. That would make, I think, for – it wouldn’t be easy, because as you say, we disagree about values and about ethical conceptions and about how to value education or health or military service, whatever it would be.

We do disagree, but unless we elevate the terms of our public discourse and engage with these bigger questions, including about markets, we’re going to continue to have a kind of emptied-out public discourse.

Tavis: Here’s the problem, though. If you’re Mitt Romney, and I’m not saying this to cast aspersion on him, but you are at Harvard, he was the governor of Massachusetts. To engage in at least a piece of this conversation gets you labeled by Mitt Romney as engaging the politics of envy.

Now, he was bold enough, oversimplistic enough, to say that publicly, but I suspect he ain’t – pardon my English – he ain’t the only one that feels that way, that Sandel and Smiley and others who raise these kinds of questions are engaging in the politics of envy.

You are raising these issues because you don’t have what I have, and it’s your own character flaw that you haven’t worked hard enough, so yadda, yadda, yadda about the common space and the public good.

Sandel: Right, right.

Tavis: I have what I have because I worked hard. If I worked hard and I can afford X, Y, or Z, don’t hate on me because I can afford it and you can’t, and don’t engage in the politics of envy.

Sandel: Here’s what I would say. First of all, the kind of politics we have now is largely managerial, technocratic talk on the one hand, or where passion enters – and that part is uninspired – or where passion enters, too often it’s shouting matches on cable television or talk radio or ideological food fights.

What’s missing is reasoned public discourse and argument about these big moral questions. So my answer to that challenge would be it’s not about class warfare. I have a hunch that even those of us who sometimes occupy the skyboxes at the baseball game would rather have a public life, would rather have public services and public spaces that were good enough, flourishing enough, so that everyone, rich and poor, would want to join in them. Public schools strong enough so that the affluent would not have to take their kids out and send them elsewhere.

So I think this is not only a complaint from the bottom about fairness, though fairness is important. I think this is also a question about what kind of society we want to have.

Do we want a society where people from different walks of life, rich and poor alike, can send their kids to excellent public schools, can all take advantage of first-rate, reliable public transportation, can all have access to decent healthcare or municipal facilities or museums and cultural institutions?

My hunch is that even those who have felt the need to buy their way out from public services and public institutions and common places would find it more attractive to descend from the skyboxes and join in with their families and their kids to the shared spaces and democratic life. You don’t think so?

Tavis: Professor, I think that’s a charitable and generous read.

Sandel: Yeah?

Tavis: I think so because the last person who tried to get us to have this conversation, and he might put it this way – whatever happened to the notion of love in our public discourse? By love I just mean to suggest, as Dr. King would suggest, that everybody is worthy just because, and we ought to share these democratic spaces even if you have more than I have.

But the last person who tried to get us to have a national conversation about this they shot down like a dog on a balcony in Memphis. So even if you’re right about the fact that they might be willing to come out of those skyboxes and engage this conversation, with all due respect to Michael J. Sandel, who’s going to lead us in that conversation?

Sandel: Well, we have to look for leaders.

Tavis: Right.

Sandel: But not only leaders.

Tavis: Okay.

Sandel: We also have to try to build from the ground up the institutions of civil society that are between the market on the one hand and the government on the other. Institutions of civil society where people gather together, initially in small places, and learn the art, the habit, of civil discourse, democratic discourse and argument, and then gradually enlarge the reach.

So if it’s just a choice between markets, individualism and consumer identities on the one hand or the government, then there’s very little space in between that can cultivate the common life that I think we need.

So we need leaders who can inspire, who can elevate our vision, but we also need institutions – educational institutions, unions, various social movements – that can – and local schools, by the way, are one example of this, institutions of higher education are another. Various forms of the media that lean against the current are another.

Ways of beginning a more morally robust public conversation about, well, with regard to these themes, a conversation about where money and markets belong and where they should be kept at a distance.

Tavis: I’m going to press you again on this. I think your point is aspirational more than it is actual, so I’m going to press again.

Sandel: Right.

Tavis: Look, for example – so it’s not just Dr. King, he’s dead and gone 40-some years ago. Warren Buffett came out with his statement, how much his secretary paid more taxes than he did?

Sandel: He did. He did.

Tavis: They spanked him. He took a beat down from a bunch of people who happened to be wealthy. If Warren Buffett wants to pay more taxes, let him pay more taxes. So Warren Buffett’s comment was not met with applause by the 1 percent. They didn’t applaud that, number one.

Number two, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have famously tried to get others to sign on to their pledge.

Sandel: That’s right, that’s right, that’s right.

Tavis: Others are signing on, but they’re not coming out the skyboxes in droves to sign on to that, and even if they were, I make a distinction between charity and justice. Philanthropy and justice are still two very different things. You’re talking more about justice.

So I’m still trying to figure out if Warren Buffett gets pushed back on, and Romney, who could be president, calls it the politics of envy and billionaires are not signing up in droves even to give money away, so you (unintelligible) engage the conversation. Just give some money, say Buffett and Gates, and there aren’t people lining up to do that.

I’m just trying to figure out – it’s a dynamic conversation that I want to entertain, but I just don’t know how that happens. You say about institutions and you mention education and you mention unions. Look at what’s happened to unions.

The 1 percent and the others, the pushback on unions, the demonization of unions, the bashing of those who want collective bargaining where education is concerned, what do they want to do? They want to privatize education, markets at work.

Sandel: Right, right.

Tavis: I’m just trying to imagine where these people are that you know who you think are willing to come out of these skyboxes and engage this very fascinating and dynamic conversation. I’d love to see it, but I don’t see the evidence of it.

Sandel: Right. Well, we have to try.

Tavis: Okay. I’m all for that.

Sandel: I was a few days ago giving a talk about this book to a group of investors, and Warren Buffett gave a talk just before mine, and he gave his same message, that his taxes should not be the same as his secretary’s.

Some of the people in the audience – I was watching – they’d heard it before. Some were startled. But some were listening. You never know where this can go, and contributions to this kind of public discourse can come from a surprising direction.

Of course there will be pushback. This is a very long story. Yeah, I plead guilty, Tavis, to being aspirational. This is a book in part about the moral and civic ideals that we should aim at, the kind of public discourse we should try to achieve.

From where will it come at a time when our public discourse is so impoverished? I think that’s a fair question. I accept that. But we have to begin somewhere, and I suspect there may be surprising responses coming from different quarters.

I mentioned educational institutions and unions. Religious communities are another possible source and venue. I think what we need to look for are venues, convening places, throughout our society –

Tavis: I take that.

Sandel: – that take questions of meaning seriously, that want to have debates about justice and citizenship and what it means to be a citizen, and how the particular experience that people bring to those venues, whether they be religious or secular, whether they be connected to the world of work and unions, or whether they’re constituted in other ways, educational centers, institutions, cultural centers.

We need convening places, venues, but we also need – and you’ve actually, you have to plead guilty to this too, you’re part of the aspirational reach –

Tavis: Guilty.

Sandel: – for American civic discourse.

Tavis: Sure.

Sandel: That’s what this is about.

Tavis: I guess the question is whether or not – let me put it this way. If I said to you that I’m with you on the aspirational part and I get that it’s got to start somewhere – and I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

Sandel: I understand.

Tavis: I agree with your premise and I love the book. But I guess if I said to you that the devolution of our culture and the decay of our civilization has moved us beyond any capacity to have a conversation about morals, the vitriol and the venom and the greed in our society has us on the precipice of going over the cliff in this country – I’m not an optimist, but I’m a prisoner of hope, so give me reason to believe.

Sandel: Okay, all right. I speak mainly as a teacher, and I’ve been teaching this subject, and as you mentioned at the top I’ve been teaching this course on justice. The way I go about it is I start where the students are, which is why this book is filled with examples and stories, large and small, just to illustrate the way markets have encroached into aspects of life where many people would be actually quite surprised.

Stories, for example, about commercial advertising now even reaching people’s bodies, body billboards. There’s a story in here about a woman who auctioned off access to her forehead to a company, and for $10,000 she installed a permanent tattoo of an online casino on her forehead.

Now, I think it’s possible to engage even the most ardent free market advocate with some of these examples. Then we say all right, well, what about the next, and the next? How far would you take that? So you wouldn’t carry that logic all the way – by that I mean the economic logic of free market and exchange, and that’s where we begin.

Tavis: For more examples from Professor Sandel, more examples that he lays out in this text about where the market does, in fact, have moral limits, at our website at PBS.org/Tavis and hear more from him about some examples in the book.

For now, though, we thank Professor Michael J. Sandel for already starting across this country a conversation that does, in fact, make me hopeful. The book is called “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.” Professor Sandel, an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Sandel: It’s great to be with you.

Tavis: Delighted to talk to you.

Sandel: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 10, 2012 at 5:56 pm