Sandel: Equality is the key to the common good


Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy and government at Harvard University, lectures in the Amphitheater Friday morning. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

Smoking is popular in the Czech Republic. When the Czech government considered raising the tax on those cigarettes — the very ones that kill thousands of people each year — major cigarette corporation Philip Morris was very unhappy.

Philip Morris presented a cost-benefit analysis on the effects of raising the tax on the national budget.

The cigarette company explained that, although it’s true that smokers impose greater medical costs, those costs are only applied while they are still alive. Once they have died — from, say, lung cancer — those costs are no longer applied. As smokers generally have lower life expectancies, having more smokers actually increases the national gross domestic product.

Thus, Philip Morris presented its findings: Raising the tax would actually reduce the country’s GDP. Specifically, each smoking-related death saved the government $1,227. However, the study failed to include the costs imposed on the smokers and the families as a result of smoking.

The public went wild with outrage.

Michael Sandel, political philosopher and Harvard University professor, told this story during his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater.

His lecture, the fifth and final in Week Two’s topic on “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good,” focused on inequality and the disinclination to address morality in political policies as barriers to reaching the common good.

“What passes for political argument too often consists of shouting matches on cable television and talk radio, ideological food fights on the floor of Congress,” Sandel said. “So the question I’d like to ask today is: How we can do better? How can elevate the terms of public discourse? How can we reach for a new politics of the common good?”

Rising inequality

If the U.S. population were listed in order of wealth, the top 1 percent has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, Sandell said. Furthermore, he said the average CEO makes more money in a day than the average person makes in an entire year.

“(Some people say) we don’t have to worry so much about the redistribution of income and wealth in this country because, unlike Europe, we believe in mobility,” Sandel said. “You’re not stuck where you begin. We believe in the ability to rise. So it matters less, the argument goes, that there’s an uneven redistribution of income and wealth if people can rise by their own efforts.”

At this point, someone in the audience yelled, “If.”

The problem, Sandel said, is that this isn’t the case.

Those born into the bottom quintile on the income scale have a 42 percent chance of remaining in that bottom quintile for their entire lives, Sandel said.

Furthermore, there’s only a 6 percent chance that those born in the bottom quintile will rise to the top quintile — and the top quintile is only considered upper-middle class. With a college education, that number rises to 19 percent.

“The single biggest determinant of where you end up,” Sandel said, “is not college education; it’s where you were born. The best way to land on top, now, is to have the good judgment to be born to parents who started on the top.”

America, he said, is no longer the “land of opportunity.” That title deserves to be given to Denmark, he said, because Denmark has the most promising statistics of rising income levels. France, Spain and all the Scandinavian countries have better chances than America.

He used the imagery of skyboxes in sports stadiums as an illustration to this widening rift between the rich and the poor. When he was younger, Sandel said, everyone — no matter their income levels — sat with one another in stadiums. Today, the rich are able to sit “segregated” from the poor.

This rich-poor gap makes democracy less effective, he said. The rich and the poor are leading very different lives and therefore want different things. The issue here, he said, is that not everyone is represented.

Morality in public discourse

Sandel said another obstacle is the reluctance or fear to utilize moral and spiritual means in public discourse. He said that the disagreement in terms of morality and spirituality means those are not welcome in politics. Sandel doesn’t think it should be that way.

“When you bring morality or spiritual questions into public light,” he said, “the argument often goes, ‘That’s a recipe for intolerance at best, and maybe for coercion. We don’t want that. We’re going to keep morality at arm’s length.’”

He said those same people view shouting matches and the like on broadcast stations as examples of that very same unrest. He said it’s the very opposite; it’s the lack of “genuine moral engagement” that creates so much political aggression.

Instead of creating equality by stifling all spiritual and moral ideas, Sandel said equality should be made by including all of them.

“In a politics of moral engagement, it’s a better way of respecting our fellow citizens,” he said, “than trying to pretend that we can conduct our public life without reference to these big moral questions.”

Markets reaching from their spheres

The third obstacle to reaching the common good, Sandel said, is that markets and market reasoning are creeping into areas of sociality that do not use market norms.

Once the Cold War was over, Sandel said, the U.S. saw that capitalism had prevailed. This “market triumphalism” gave the impression that market thought was the tool for achieving the common good, he said. That thought continued through today.

Through this way of thinking, cost-benefit analysis began to be applied to more than just corporations, such as in the story about cigarettes in the Czech Republic, in which a company tried to put a monetary value on human life. There have been numerous other examples of this as well.

He said the idea is flawed in itself but became more so once the financial crisis struck.

‘An expression of the truth’

When Sandel explained the facts about the difference in income between the rich and the poor, the crowd erupted into applause.

“You like that? Well, we shall see,” he said, mistaking the applause for approval.

He pointed to a man in the audience. “Why do you like that idea?”

“It’s an expression of the truth.”

“Oh, it’s an expression of the truth,” he said. “Do you like the condition, the fact that it describes?”

“No,” the man said.

“Do you think it’s unfair?” Sandel said.

“Yes, sir,” the man said.

“You do? Does everyone agree?”

And the Amp responded with favorable applause.

Q: To begin, I couldn’t help but think about inequality in this country. It is also a fact, that in the last — I forget the number of years; 10 years, let’s say — in a combination of China and India alone, half a billion people have emerged from poverty. Thinking of poverty as a basic moral issue, an ethical issue, clearly the motivation of that is indeed a market robust activity. Can you explain that?

A: Markets can be very useful and powerful instruments for organizing productive activity and increasing affluence. But markets by themselves cannot define justice and cannot produce a good society. And if you consider China, which has lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter time, maybe than any country in the history of the world, that’s a great achievement. And yet, the Chinese themselves, including the Chinese government, are acutely aware that, along with rising GDP and the creation of the middle class, have come great social challenges, the first of which is rising inequality and the social friction, the threat to social cohesion that comes with it — also, real environmental challenges. So the question is not whether to use markets. The challenge, and this is a question that needs to be worked out for each society and each country for itself, is to use markets as tools rather than allow markets to come to define us and the common good. Here’s a way of thinking about it: What’s happened to us, I think, is that we have slipped, without quite realizing it, from having a market economy to becoming a market society, and that’s the danger.

Q: There are several questions that have to do with inequality and the behavior of elected officials. To what extent, for example, do tax preferences distort the invisible hand or market triumphalism? What do you think about flat tax to help promote the common good?

A: I’m not keen on a flat tax. I think there are two forms of tax reform, which might achieve greater simplicity and which might also serve fairness. One of them would be to try to shift taxation from work to consumption. Now the risk of doing that is that a consumption tax, unless it’s thought through carefully, can be regressive. So you would have to do it in a way that exempted basic necessity, so it didn’t fall most heavily on the poor, but you could do that. You could design a consumption tax; you could do it in a way that was progressive. Then, we would not only put less of a burden on work, and I think the greatest burden. The greatest tax on work is not the income tax; it’s the payroll tax, which is increasingly a regressive tax. But, I also think an advantage of putting more weight on consumption taxes than on taxes on labor is that it is a way of leaning against the consumerist ethos that takes hold of us, and it’s a way of doing what we say we want to do, which is to prize and recognize and honor work rather than consumption. Now there are other alternatives to a flat tax, which would simplify the tax system, and that would be to have a few steps of taxation in marginal rates, which could be much, much lower than they are if we got rid of all the tax loopholes and tax deductions, including oil and depletion allowances and so on that riddle the tax system. And whether or not in this budget debate, this debt-ceiling debate, I don’t know; it might be too ambitious for this round. So those are some alternatives to a flat tax. I would just add one other thing on taxation. For all of the argument we have about taxes and the burden of taxes, by the standard of all other democracies in the world — this will get me in trouble, but I’m just stating a statistical fact — we are under-taxed. The percent of GDP that we spend in taxes, federal and state taxes, is at its lowest level since 1965. It’s not that tax burdens have increased; it’s as low as its been since 1965. And it’s the lowest of all the OECD countries, with two exceptions: Chile and Mexico. In the European countries, by-and-large, the tax-take relative to GDP ranges from 30 percent to the low 40s. The highest, by the way, at around 40 percent, I think, is Denmark, which placed with the greatest economic mobility of any country, far greater than ours.

Q: There are a host of questions that are struggling with your critique of the cost-benefit analysis, acknowledging in every case the imperfection of the process, but nonetheless the argument being that at some point quantification is a technique necessary for a meaningful broad-based kind of discussion. What decision-making process and tools are you proposing to add to the issue of quantification?

A: There are two problems with trying to quantify all costs and all benefits. One is a false scientism, a false precision, as in the example with the nuclear particle accelerator. There’s another danger, which is the more we consign policy making, decision making, to cost-benefit analysis, the more we give it over to experts and to technocrats who crank through these numbers, the more we remove these numbers from democratic discourse. So, I am all in favor of deciding public policy based on weighing the competing considerations. That’s fine; how else could you do it? You have to weigh the competing considerations. The question is whether you can translate all the costs and benefits of a proposed policy into monetary terms. I think that’s a mistake, and it’s a mistake with pernicious effects when you think about the way in which it takes decision making, about the environment, for example, out of democratic deliberation, which, after all, is the place where competing values should be debated and argued about, and it consigns those decisions to bureaucrats who claim the expertise to assign the costs and the benefits. So the pubic should be made aware, surely, of the costs of the policy. How to weigh the benefits? If it’s in lives saved or in the quality of the common life that’s achieved, those are value-laden, not scientific questions that should be debated by everyone.

Q: There’s a question specific to the Supreme Court decision that, in effect, makes corporations persons having to do with contributions to the electoral process. Does this relate to your presentation today?

A: Well, it does in the sense that it’s an obstacle to revitalizing democratic politics. If corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money in campaigns, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to move away from a market-driven, interest-driven kind of politics. So the Citizens United decision, yet another five-to-four decision of the Supreme Court, a very broad decision striking down legislative attempts to limit the role of money in politics in the name of free speech. I think free speech properly understood is speech that takes place in a framework of genuinely democratic, political debate and argument. And that framework is eroded when corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns.

Q: There are questions that focus on schools, on roadways. This one, I think, captures a sense of where they were all going though. Do we have private security, because public security failed to keep us secure? Why did that happen? Are we looking at incompetence, the courts, mismanagement or wasted tax dollars?

A: Well, all of the above. And the question in a way is a kind of challenge, as I hear it, to my worrying about the eclipse of public police protection by privatized security. It is true; there is a vicious circle, as public facilities and institutions weaken. The schools are bad; after a certain point, it’s certainly a lot to ask even the most civic-minded to send their children there, and so it’s perfectly rational. If public service is deteriorating beyond a certain point, the schools and the police protection, to try to opt out if you can afford it, but what I’m saying is that this sets in motion a corrosive cycle that we should worry about, that we should debate politically. That this is what these presidential candidates should be addressing, instead of some of the things they do talk about; it affects the character of our common life and the extent to which we really, in fact, share a common life. That’s the prerequisite of democracy; not that there be perfect equality of incoming wealth, but that there be a rough equality of sufficient conditions, so that we, as citizens, share a common life. So that we bump up against one another from different walks of life, in downtown areas, or in the public schools, or on the soccer field, or on public transportation. And if that doesn’t happen, then, increasingly, we don’t think of ourselves as sharing a community, a common life. And if that doesn’t happen, democracy, in any meaningful sense, becomes impossible. So that’s the challenge, and it’s a reason to care about the quality of public services that goes beyond the inconvenience that comes with bad public services; it’s a civic reason to care about the quality of public services and public life.

Q: This person is certain that you’ve thought about this deeply. What are the moral dimensions that you think are missing in the discussions of the provision of health care in this country?

A: The health care debate, for the most part, descended into a technocratic debate. The summer when the Tea Party rose up against health care, I heard President Obama, I was watching C-SPAN, and he was making the case for health care, talking about the need to bend the cost curve in the out years. And I thought, “My gosh, if he’s speaking that technocratic language about health care, we’re never going to get it.” What I was hoping he would do, and he did this to some extent later in the fall, when he gave a speech to Congress about health care, was to bring it back to the moral and the civic question. That is how Senator Kennedy, a great advocate of health care, spoke about health care — always as a moral question and a civic question. In an affluent nation, it simply isn’t right that your ability to get care when you’re sick should depend on your ability to pay. That’s the fundamental, moral principle that I think should have figured more prominently in the health care debate. There is a fundamental, moral principle, I should say, on the other side, which also was obscured in the discussion of the costs, and how (health care) would drag the economy down. The opponents of health care, the ideologically consistent ones, had a certain idea of freedom; that this was a violation of what they understood to be freedom. “Why should I be commanded by the government to buy health care or to pay for health care for somebody else?” And I think those of us in favor of health care should have addressed that argument directly, challenged that idea of freedom and made this moral argument about whether access to health should depend on your ability to pay. Unfortunately, the health care debate often left aside those fundamental questions of principle, and maybe that’s why we got such a watered-down result; I’m not sure.

Q: This questioner points out here that individual freedom is the basis of our constitution. So is there a conflict between common good and individual freedom?

A: It depends what you mean by individual freedom. Actually, I was listening to this first Republican debate, and the one I liked best was Ron Paul. He’s a consistent libertarian, and that leads to him against government spending, and it also leads him to be against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was consistent with his libertarian principles, and there’s something admirable about that. Now, I think the libertarian view of freedom is flawed; I think it’s overly narrow. But there has been a great debate in the history of our country, going back to the Constitution about what freedom means. And there’s one view of freedom that says, to be free is to be able to act on my desires, so long as I don’t hurt somebody else. Now that first idea says, therefore, it’s a violation of liberty to require you to buckle up your seat belt; it’s a violation of liberty to require you to wear a helmet when you’re riding a motorcycle. I think that’s a wrong-headed idea of freedom. The other idea of freedom is often not articulated as powerfully as it should be, and that’s what might be called the civic idea of freedom that says fully to be free is not just to be able to get what I want, to satisfy my preferences and desires; really to be free, is to live the kind of life, and it is a common life, that is to reflect critically on what I may want, or prefer, or think is in my interest at any given moment. That idea of freedom might be called civic freedom because it can only happen — it can’t happen only in private, in a democratic society, where citizens, as equals, can argue with one another and challenge one another about the meaning of liberty and what is worth wanting, what is worth desiring. That’s, I think, a higher idea of freedom and too often, in our public debates, the notion of liberty is conceded to the free-market, laissez-faire libertarian view, and it sometimes suggests, “Well yeah, we want some other things too.” No. The argument should be that’s too narrow an idea of freedom; that’s a consumerist idea of freedom, but there’s a higher idea of freedom, and that’s the freedom of citizens.

– Transcribed by Sarah Gelfand

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