Harvard’s celebrated political philosopher weighs in on Brexit, the state of economics and the value of arguing everything overby Tom Clark / May 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
You might have thought you could rely on a Harvard professor to despair at the “had enough of experts” mood of today’s politics.
But Michael Sandel—philosopher, author and a celebrated convenor of challenging debates—is careful not to dismiss the sentiment too quickly. “I think the political animus behind the mistrust of experts is that, under cover of expert technocratic knowledge, decisions are being made that are smuggling in values without allowing the public to debate those values.”
Of course, Sandel explains, one doesn’t want to lapse into a “foolish embrace of ignorance in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary.” But, he continues, it’s important to distinguish “legitimate scientific knowledge” from that form of “technocratic expertise” that “claims to be value-neutral” while making inherently political decisions about, say, health, education or the environment. “The name of expertise,” he says, is invoked to justify controversial judgments that ordinary citizens are quite right to feel ought to be “contested.”
“Contesting” is what Sandel has been encouraging in his Harvard classes for many years. Students are encouraged to wrestle with big questions—and each other—to expose, and appreciate, the differences in values that underlie their different judgments about whether, for example, people should be allowed to sell sex, or for that matter their kidneys. (One of his thousands of former students is, rather incongruously, whispered to have based The Simpsons’ evil arch-capitalist, Mr Burns, on the perennially ethically-serious Sandel).
Most of his fellow-scholars of government in Cambridge, Massachusetts would dismiss Brexit as Britain’s madness, but Sandel places much of the blame on Europe itself—for having “failed to allow public deliberations” or “develop the democratic spaces” which allow citizens to feel that their voices are being heard. He suspects Leavers and Remainers alike felt that the EU—with no common parties or common media—lacked the “culture” that could engage its citizens over big choices. Instead, the European Union at least appeared to make its mind up away from the spotlight—using technocratic criteria—and would then simply dump its decisions as fait accompli on the people.
In his underlying thinking here, Sandel is very much in line with Howard Reed’s recent—and controversial—call in Prospect to “Rip up” and reboot economics—in order to do away with its technocratic pretensions, and welcome back in arguments about the values on which it rests. Indeed, several years ago Sandel himself wrote in Prospect that he would like nothing more than to rewrite the economics textbooks to bring all the hidden politics that it embeds out into the open.
What, I ask him, does he make of those efforts by economists like Wendy Carlin to write a new textbook for the post-crash age? In principle, he welcomes the idea of bringing in a bit more behavioural psychology, history and especially the history of economic thought, because the latter, he says, can “reconnect economics with its origins in moral and political philosophy.” In the United States at least, however, Sandel maintains that none of the efforts at a refreshed economics that he has seen thus far have brought in that ethical “contestation” that he so wants to see. Too “much teaching in economics is still conceived and taught as if it were a value-neutral science.” He thinks the next generation of students can see through that posture, and they “want to be able to think about and discuss the inescapable normative dimension of market analysis.”
Herein lies the spur to Sandel’s latest project. Having previously taken his Socratic dialogue classes onto a radio show (BBC’s The Public Philosopher) and even stadiums, he has now produced a series of short videos with the support of the Institute for New Economic Thinking in which bright students, and hard-bitten economics professionals, are encouraged to think about where markets should stop. In one episode they thrash out why, exactly, we feel uneasy about people selling their votes, or their citizenship rights. Where, from a free market point of view, is the problem if both the buyer and the seller are happy with the deal they strike? The point of the exercise is, of course, that the market perspective is not the only one that counts.
It’s hard to argue against the Sandel request for more reflection and deliberation, but where would it actually lead? Would policy actually change? Or would we simply end up, as Oscar Wilde feared about socialism, with too many evenings given over to dreary meetings. And would, I also wonder, economics lose all its practical bite—with all its policy conclusions replaced by question marks.
When I press him on where things would go, Sandel becomes a little more reticent—it’s the deliberative democratic method he is pushing, he suggests where it leads could be very open. As for “those question marks,” they can be answered with “our values: we need to make them explicit. They are the business of democracy, not technocrats” in economics departments or the European commission.
Nonetheless, I wonder, is the aim really just to “reinvigorate public debate” as a goal in itself, rather than to change anything? By pulling discussion out of the echo chamber—whether that of the technocratic economists or the Trump-voting partisans—Sandel hopes that the tone of the debate would improve as people learned “to listen,” an under-rated civic virtue for him. Once people can listen, he suggests, maybe they’d become a bit more empathetic which would—perhaps—also make them a bit less inclined to think, say, that people born on the other side of a national border were inherently wicked.
But would that mean more support for liberal immigration policies? Not necessarily, he says, because at the very same time the liberal voters who had previously dismissed those anxious about immigration as bigots and boneheads would now be exposed to their anxieties about jobs and the rest of it, and would feel more “respect and civility” towards these people and their insecurities.
So even though I strongly suspect that Sandel has many liberal and egalitarian values at a personal level, for him it really is as much about the value in the deliberation itself as about anything that might be achieved by it.
He, for one, would not be too worried about giving up dark evenings to dull meetings. But then again, the meetings probably wouldn’t be dull if he was holding the ring.