Michael Sandel is one of the world’s most famous political philosophers and a professor at Harvard University. He joined IPPR’s director Nick Pearce in conversation at the recent Labour party conference in Manchester.
Nick Pearce: I’d like to start by asking you, Michael, why you became a political philosopher. What drew you into political theory?
Michael Sandel: I was always a political junkie – I followed politics from the time I was a kid. When I graduated from college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – maybe become a political journalist, a lawyer, or even a politician. In fourth place was the idea of going into academia. But the chance came up to study in Oxford, so I took it. I thought I would fill in the gaps in my knowledge – glaringly, political theory – by reading my way through Plato and Aristotle and up to the present in my first term there. Actually it took two terms, and two turned into three, and pretty soon I was hooked. But despite my choice of political philosophy, I’ve always retained my interest in the public world, and I’m intrigued to explore the links between philosophy and actual politics.
NP: You call yourself a ‘public philosopher’ rather than a political or academic philosopher. Have you sought throughout your career to be a public intellectual – someone who tries to inform public debate?
MS: Well, I wouldn’t renounce the academic label – what I do for a living is teach political philosophy and write about it. But the term ‘public philosopher’ appeals to me because it speaks to this connection between ideas and public life. In my earlier work, my writing was less accessible to non-academic readers. But in the last few years I’ve tried to do more to connect the philosophical debates that I write about with contemporary political debates.
NP: You first came to prominence in 1982 with the book Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. You were one of the leading figures of the liberal communitarian debate of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. What drew you to think in terms of communities at that time?
MS: Although my own ideas were to the left of centre, I was uneasy with the ideas of both communitarianism and liberalism.. I was uneasy with the relentless, unqualifiedly individualistic nature of liberalism, and its attempt to be neutral in relation to moral questions such as the nature of the good life and civic virtue. I was also critical of its failure to address the belief in unfettered markets. I thought the ideal of having government and public life be neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good life and virtue was a mistake. In fact, in recent decades, the religious rightwing and cultural conservatives have challenged the Right’s liberal individualists on that score – but there was not a comparable movement on the left, trying to bring moral and spiritual resonance, and debates about the good life into American politics, until 2008 in Obama’s campaign. Bill Clinton tapped into it a bit; but Obama tapped into it very powerfully.
NP: So do you think that progressive politics, both here and in the US, has been denuded of something powerful?
MS: Yes. It has been the biggest weakness of progressive politics, especially in the US and UK, for the past three decades. There’s nothing intrinsically conservative about engaging with questions of the good life. If you go back to the 1960s in American politics, the most powerful voices arguing in the name of justice, the common good and civic virtue were Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy. They both very powerfully evoked moral and spiritual considerations and brought them to bear on politics. But after that period, liberal politics, or Democratic politics broadly speaking, shifted to a more procedural and less morally robust liberalism which lent itself to a kind of policy-driven managerialism which lost the capacity to inspire.
NP: Your case is not that we can agree on a substantive version of the good life. So what is it that you think the politics of the common good consists of if it doesn’t consist of an agreement about the good life that everyone can sign up to?
MS: I don’t think that on every big issue about competing ideals we can expect to come to a common agreement. But I don’t think that we can know where we can – and can’t – find agreement about moral questions in our common life until we try. I think it’s an open question on any issue as to how much common ground we can find. I resist the philosophy that says, ‘because we disagree on conceptions of the good life, we must keep those questions out of common discourse’. We don’t know until we’ve actually had the exchange whether we can persuade others or not.
NP: One of the implications of that is that people of religious belief play a more active role in public debate. For Europeans, looking at America, we might think ‘why would we want that kind of political argument in European democracies?’ It seems quite destructive. So far from bringing people together, it appears to be quite polarising – it divides them. How do you respond to Europeans that this kind of engagement with people of faith doesn’t lead to division?
MS: I think when people look at religious and moral issues in the US, they look at two or three issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, and to a lesser degree, stem cell research. These are the areas where there are strong, and seemingly intractable, disagreements about questions that seem to be bound up with competing religious views. American democracy is not in very good shape, and is impoverished in much the same way as most European democracies, in that it is exhausted and in need of new energy. But I actually think that the problem with American political discourse is not too much moral argument in politics, but too little. Apart from the three issues I’ve named, when it comes to questions of the economy, for example, there is relatively little in the way of moral and spiritual energy that is brought to bear. The debate would be richer and more interesting if we conducted all our public debates in a much more open way – bringing both secular and religious arguments to the table. We shouldn’t adjudicate in advance what sources are relevant or appropriate.
NP: One of the discussions that is taking place here, particularly in the Labour movement, is whether because a secular progressive politics was pursued over a type that did involve the sorts of moral considerations that you describe, it led to a quite technocratic politics. So, for example, we decide that we want something abstract like more equality, and then measure it by whether the Gini coefficient comes down. What would you say to people in the Labour party in the UK, and people interested in progressive politics more generally? What should we be aiming at, if not an abstract notion of equality or social justice?
MS: I think that it would be important to anchor the concern for social justice and equality in the longer tradition of the Labour party which draws on resources of solidarity, civic virtue and community. To do that is to connect what you rightly describe as an abstract approach to equality and social justice with the lives people actually live, the struggles they’re engaged in, and the projects they care about. It makes for a more concrete, textured and story-rich politics than the abstraction to which liberal politics has been prone for the last 30 years. And I think one of the reasons that it has been so prone to this has to do with the underlying acceptance of the market faith introduced by Thatcher and Reagan. Even when their governments were defeated, the market faith – that markets are the primary instrument for achieving the common good –was not challenged. Their successors worked within the same assumption, but made it a bit more humane; a bit more compassionate. That they didn’t challenge the fundamental idea led to an impoverishment in public discourse that fed the sense of a technocratic and managerial approach to politics.
NP: Coming from the left – the Clinton Democrats, the Third Way – one might argue that that’s all very well, but the one thing the left is not normally trusted on, and needs to prove it can be trusted on to be electorally successful, is running the economy. Do you think that there’s a danger in your discourse that people come to think the left don’t trust markets at all?
MS: I think there is that danger, and the way to address it is to run the economy successfully and efficiently, and to draw a distinction between a market economy as a tool, and a market society as a way of life. There’s no reason why progressive leaders and parties can’t articulate and implement a strong and effective economic policy, and articulate the values, attitudes, norms and ideals that are worth preserving lest we slide into a market society, allowing market reasoning to replace moral reasoning. We need to make that distinction often and frequently, as well as manage the economy well.
NP: In your recent book you describe how this kind of market-dominated thinking took hold in the 1950s and 1960s. What do you think happened to make this sort of thinking take hold? Why did it come about, and how did it happen?
MS: I see it more as a process which unfolds more in the late 1970s, starting in academia with the Chicago school, in which economics was seen as a way of describing the whole gamut of human behaviour. Then we got Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher making the argument in politics that government is the problem, and markets are the solution. But I think the key shift was when the Democratic party and the Labour party succeeded them in office but didn’t really take on the underlying assumption. I think the end of the Cold War was a factor here as well – we misread it, to suggest that there was only one system left standing, and that was free market capitalism of a certain kind that must apply in the same way in all places. That was an over-reading and a misreading, because it assumed that capitalism is one thing, and that markets can provide the answers to all of social policy, in every domain of life. It was hubris. But it was also a comfort, because it seemed to be a way of avoiding engaging with these hotly contested moral questions. Markets and market thinking seemed to spare us from having to make judgements, and engaging in arguments about the good life. The allure of markets delivering the goods is only one part of it. It also fit with the impulse to shrink from engaging with controversial moral questions in public. If it runs this deep, we need to really rethink a lot.
NP: Given this ambition, how do you square that with your pessimism about the state of democratic politics? What would produce the sort of change you’re looking for?
MS: I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic about democratic politics. I would distinguish between optimism and hope. I’m not optimistic that democratic politics will be recast, but I’m hopeful. I think there is some basis for hope because the public is equally frustrated with the terms of political discourse today. Everyone wants a better type of politics – to elevate public discourse to address bigger things. They may disagree about what those bigger things are, but I think there is a stirring of frustration about the existing public discourse – in the US, in Europe, and even in Asia. And the reason I’m hopeful is that I think that this frustration can be tapped into. There is an aspiration for a better type of public discourse.
NP: Let me ask you one final question. One of the big things that happened in the mid-1990s in response to the bureaucracy of the state was an effort to open it up and make it more accountable. Part of this was the privatisation of certain state functions. Would you say that there are some institutions that should always be in the public realm and have no involvement with any kind of commercial interest? Can you turn that into a critique of the role of private companies and markets in the public sector as a whole?
MS: We should ask hard questions about outsourcing. I don’t think we should never do it, if it’s possible to deliver services more effectively and in the public interest. But it has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It cannot be a matter of faith – it must be a pragmatic decision, and one that is informed by debate about the common good, especially in matters that concern health, education, the armed services, criminal justice, and so on. We need to be alive to those nuances of public purpose that can be crowded out in privatisation. I don’t rule it out as a matter of principle.
I think a politics of the common good that worries about market overreach should not simply embrace, for every purpose, the state as the necessary alternative. Such a politics has also to work out forms of public life within civil society that can advance some important civic aims and moral goods. So we could break out of the state of mind of seeing the market as the only tool available to the state. That’s why I think that the idea of the ‘Big Society’, though it wasn’t actually articulated or implemented in a way that would achieve these goals, was something the left of centre could have engaged with and embraced. At its heart was the idea of civil society animating public life, and the left could have offered an alternative picture of what that would look like and what’s its relationship to the state and public services would be, rather than rejecting it out of hand. It would be a useful debate to have among the parties. What actually should be the role of civil society, which is to say, non-market but non-state institutions and actors, in trying to work out a politics of the common good? And there will doubtless be different answers to the question – but that would, I think, be a very fruitful debate for us to have.
This is an edited transcript of a conversation which took place at the Labour party conference in Manchester on 30 September.