Image: John Watson

Michael Sandel: Those on top believe their success is their own doing

The philosopher explains how deepening inequalities have corroded social ties
June 16, 2022

The definite article in Michael Sandel’s two BBC radio series The Public Philosopher and The Global Philosopher speaks of the authority that he widely commands. Since delivering the 2009 BBC Reith Lectures on “Markets and Morals,” he has been an intellectual superstar. Whether giving his packed-out Harvard lectures on justice, appearing on the radio or giving interviews, he engages his interlocutors in a dialogue in which he is first among equals. But in return, he demands rigorous thought. When he asked me “do you see what I’m suggesting?” I felt as though he was as much checking I was paying full attention as he was monitoring his own clarity. 

I spoke to Sandel ahead of a conference on restitching the social fabric, organised by the housing and communities NGO Create Streets and the think tank Onward. Sandel believes the social fabric has never been seamless, but he thinks that over the last four decades, an “uncritical embrace of the market state” and a “neoliberal version of globalisation” have corroded social ties, leaving us more divided than ever. 

For Sandel, decades of liberal optimism have led to an erosion of the social fabric

He identifies three distinct sources of our malaise. The first, “deepening inequalities of income and wealth,” has been exacerbated by the second, “the meritocratic hubris of the successful, the winners of globalisation.” Returning to a key argument of his most recent book, TheTyranny of Merit, he says there is a “growing tendency for those on top to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and that they therefore deserve the full bounty that the market bestows upon them.” This results in “a sense of humiliation and resentment for those who have been left behind, because the implication is if the winners deserve their winning, then those who struggle must deserve their fate as well.” He sees social media as a third aggravating factor, feeding people information and disinformation “based on their already existing affinities, identities and convictions.” 

Underpinning this analysis is a critique of liberalism that Sandel has pushed since the publication in 1982 of the book that established him as a philosophical luminary, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. It was hailed as the strongest challenge yet to the dominant liberalism spearheaded by John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) and has possibly aged better. 

Sandel argues that liberalism promotes “an impoverished conception of the self” rooted in the “conviction that ultimately we are self-made and self-sufficient.” Widespread belief in this “unencumbered self” leads people to “lose sight of their indebtedness” to their families, teachers, communities, even “the times in which they live.” 

Liberalism’s second core mistake is to believe that if we agree on fair political procedures, we can leave individuals free to disagree about substantive values. Faith in free trade is linked to this, since ­liberals falsely believe markets “can spare us the need to engage in messy controversial debates about how to value goods, messy debates about competing conceptions of the good life and the common good.”

At the same time, liberals since the Enlightenment have embraced Montesquieu’s concept of Doux commerce, the belief that international trade creates an interdependence that deters war. Sandel says he was “always sceptical of that claim.” Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has completely exploded it. 

For Sandel, decades of liberal optimism and individualism have led not only to “an erosion of the social fabric” but “an impoverished, hollowed public discourse.” He wants “a new framing,” one that fully acknowledges our interdependence and doesn’t shy away from difficult questions of value. Sandel has been building that frame for decades, and the case for its ability to hold the political big picture has never been more persuasive.