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…