Thursday, 11 June 2009

Reith Lectures 2009 - Required Thinking!

These are available as a downloadable podcast from Radio 4, the link can be found at:  

A text version is available at:  
but it is worth listening to, because the human voice can convey emphasis in a way that a transcript just cannot.

The first lecture of 2009 by Michael Sandel discusses markets and morals. At little over 30 minutes, it should be required reading for all local politicians. This is the introduction:

One of the most pervasive tendencies of our time is the expansion of markets and market-oriented reasoning into spheres of life once governed by non-market values. Think of for-profit prisons, schools, and hospitals; the outsourcing of war to private military contractors; the growing use of private security guards rather than public police officers; the global trade in kidneys and other body parts for transplantation; the use of tradable pollution permits to lower the cost of complying with environmental regulations; proposals to use tradable permits in the allocation of refugees.

How should we think about the use of markets in cases such as these? Suppose markets can produce greater efficiency in the allocation of these goods; are they nonetheless objectionable? If so, on what grounds? Are there some things that money can't buy - or shouldn't?

Lecture 1 offers a moral framework for thinking about these questions. And it suggests that a more vigorous and searching public debate about the moral limits of markets is an essential aspect of 'the new citizenship'.

Lecture 2 is on Morality in politics and is next week. From the summary, it looks extremely interesting.

What is the role, if any, for moral argument in politics? Some say none. In pluralist societies, people disagree on morality and religion, so politics and law should, ideally at least, be neutral with respect to those controversies.

According to this view, citizens should set aside their particular moral and religious identities when they engage in public discourse, and offer reasons that everyone can accept.

In Lecture 2, Sandel makes the case for a more expansive public discourse, hospitable to moral and even religious argument. The attempt to keep morality and religions out of politics arises from a legitimate fear - the worry that religious fundamentalists, for example, will impose intolerant and coercive laws and practices. But Sandel argues that it's not always possible to decide public questions while being neutral on moral questions; and even where it's possible, it may not be desirable.

Consider, for example, some of the hotly contested social and cultural issues of contemporary politics: the debates over abortion rights, stem cell research, and same-sex marriage. Some argue that we should resolve these debates, not by delving into the moral and religious disagreements that underlie them, but rather on the basis of neutral principles of freedom of choice and non-discrimination. But Sandel tries to show why these issues can't be resolved on neutral grounds. We can't avoid delving into the underlying controversies.

What, then, would a more morally engaged public discourse look like? It would not only address familiar disputes about sexual practices and reproductive choices. It would also take up a broader range of social and economic questions. A public debate about the moral limits of markets (as discussed in Lecture 1) would be one example. A renewed debate about the moral and civic implications of inequality, and about the mutual obligations of citizens, would be another.

In short, a more robust, morally engaged public discourse - reaching economic as well as social and cultural issues - is an important element of a new citizenship.

And lastly, a few quotation from the lectures themselves which caught my attention in particular:

We need a public debate about what it means to keep markets in their place. And to have this debate, we have to think through the moral limits of markets. We need to recognise that there are some things that money can't buy and other things that money can buy but shouldn't. Looking back over three decades of market triumphalism, the most fateful change was not an increase in the incidence of greed. It was the expansion of markets and of market values into spheres of life traditionally governed by non-market norms. 

Markets are not mere mechanisms. They embody certain norms. They presuppose, and also promote, certain ways of valuing the goods being exchanged. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not touch or taint the goods they regulate. But this is a mistake. Markets leave their mark. Often market incentives erode or crowd out non-market incentives.

And this on climate change and carbon offsets:

In deciding how best to get global action on climate change, we have to cultivate a new environmental ethic, a new set of attitudes toward the planet we share. We're unlikely to foster the global cooperation we need if some countries are able to buy their way out of meaningful reductions in their own energy use.

My general point is this. Some of the good things in life are corrupted or degraded if turned into commodities, so to decide when to use markets, it's not enough to think about efficiency; we have also to decide how to value the goods in question. Health, education, national defence, criminal justice, environmental protection and so on - these are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To decide them democratically, we have to debate case by case the moral meaning of these goods in the proper way of valuing. This is the debate we didn't have during the age of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realising it, without ever deciding to do so, we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The hope for moral and civic renewal depends on having that debate now. It is not a debate that is likely to produce quick or easy agreement. To argue about the right way of valuing goods is to bring moral and even spiritual questions into public discourse.

The public life of democratic societies is not going all that well and there is a tremendous frustration - a frustration with politics and with politicians - and the debates we have in public life are really not about the things that matter most.

I've left out the examples in which he argues his case, I think most cogently, and I would advise anyone interested to read that transcript. I note that in Jersey, with the credit crunch, there is a lot of talk about "efficiency", which makes these even more pertinent. I end with an optimistic note he makes, and a very striking image, about ethics, which is very Aristotelian:

Altruism, civic spirit, benevolence, fellow feeling - there is not a fixed supply of these sentiments. To the contrary. I think those moral sentiments are less like scarce resources that are drawn down with use than like muscles that are increased and strengthened with exercise. And that's a fundamental difference, I think, between the way I view the moral psychology of markets and the way most defenders of economic reasoning do.


Anonymous said...

Thansk for posting that Tony. I had it in mind to blog on it myself, but had not yet got round to it.
I thought the Israeli nursery school example very revealing. It is exactly the sort of thinking that makes me very concerned about environmental taxes on their own applied to a relatively wealthy population like Jersey's. It gets seen more a license fee to carry on rather than a disincentive to change behaviour.

TonyTheProf said...

Yes, especially as one reads about Al Gore "buying carbon offsets" for his home. Not good!

I can see why his University lecturesare oversubscribed. It was a model of argument, fact, and clarity.

I am looking forward to next weeks; it is really good this year.