© Nick Taylor

Michael Sandel: "I'm frightened of the possibility that Joe Biden will lose the November election"

The philosopher also tells Prospect he has "long wanted to manage a Major League Baseball team"
September 1, 2020

What would people be surprised to know about you?

When I was an 18-year-old high school student, I debated Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California. I invited him to defend his views before 2,300 students—almost all left-leaning. As a high school debater, I was confident that my penetrating interrogation would be devastating. But his amiable manner was disarming. I lost the debate, which undoubtedly bolstered his presidential prospects.

What is the first news event you can recall?

The inauguration of President Kennedy, in January 1961. I was seven years old. I can recite lines from his inaugural address even now. The most searing early news event was the Kennedy assassination, in 1963. I heard it in school, as we were about to go home. It was the first moment of public trauma I can recall, when the world suddenly intruded on everyday life.

If you could invite one or more figures from history round to dinner, who would they be?

A guest list of four: first Harriet Tubman, a black woman who escaped slavery and led the “Underground Railroad,” helping hundreds of enslaved people escape to the North. Plus Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela. I’d ask them all their views on the Black Lives Matter movement.

What is your favourite quotation?

“The fortunate [person] is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate… He wants to be convinced that he ‘deserves’ it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others. He wishes to be allowed the belief that the less fortunate also merely experience [their] due.” It’s Max Weber explaining the persistent temptation of meritocratic hubris.

What one quality do we esteem too highly? And what quality is not esteemed enough?

We overestimate striving. Valorising effort above all else encourages us to believe that our success is our own doing, and to forget the luck that helped us on our way. The most under-appreciated virtue is humility—an antidote to meritocratic hubris.

What frightens you most?

The possibility that Joe Biden will lose the November election.

Are things getting better or worse?

Worse, by the day.

Which person would you most like to spend a day in the shoes of?

I’ve long wanted to manage a Major League Baseball team. I’d like to spend a day as manager of the Boston Red Sox. If we won, I’d claim that I deserved the job for the rest of the season. Or maybe for life.

What is the biggest problem of all?

I must name two, because they are connected: the precarious condition of democracy, and deepening inequality—not only of income and wealth, but also social esteem. The stark divide between winners and losers has poisoned our politics. 



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Michael Sandel teaches political philosophy at Harvard University. His new book is “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?”