Sunday, June 14, 2009

Michael Sandel on the BBC
Tom Smith

This highly regarded political philosopher from Harvard's government department is this year's Reith lecturer, a high honor apparently.  I just stumbled across it on XM radio, while driving my son to a place on Camino del Rancho del Vejas Viva Mexico el ye olde shoppe Road, or some such.  The street names around here drive me crazy.  Anyway, as I was listening to it, I was thinking, who is this guy, this is terrible, and only when the plumby BBC announcer explained it was none other than Professor Sandel of great fame from Harvard,did I think, golly. Presumably the material had been dumbed down for the audience, but even so.  

Prof. Sandel was making a great deal of the old point that markets allegedly drive out more public spirited values.  So for example he told the tale of a pre-school where parents were late picking up their kids, imposing costs on the pre-school and its teachers.  So the school started imposing fines on parents who were late.  The result?  Lateness got worse!  You see, parents saw the monetary fine as a fee and apparently thought as long as they paid the fee, it was OK to be late, and so they were. Charging a monetary fine/fee had undermined the socio-psycho-whatever that makes people not be jerks who impose on hard-working pre-school teachers.

Granted, there is a point here.  But far too much was made of it.  My immediate reaction, as I'm sure was the reaction of any economists listening, was, well, I guess the fine/fee was too low.  That just shows how hard it is to get administered prices correct.  Crank up that fee to 50 or 100 bucks an hour, whatever Mom pays her Pilates instructor or Dad his golf pro, and those Escalades and X5's will be rolling into the parking lot with minutes to spare.  But no, instead we get a lecture on how markets undermine our morals.  In the meantime, I am wondering WTF Villa Rancho del Bougainville a la Provincal is.  So possibly I was grouchy to begin with.

I'm sure there is some effect of this sort.  But neither is it the case that moral suasion and monetary enforcement are completely at odds.  It is absolutely routine for criminal sanctions, for example, to impose both a fine and a stigma. Each can contribute to a deterrent effect.  And fines can work.  On the highway by my lovely development of semi- demi- hemi- custom homes, a sign proclaims "Fine for Littering $1000."  No "Please don't be a litterbug", just a four figure fine.  Given how well travelled the road is and frankly, by whom, it is a remarkably clean road.  Would it be nice if you didn't need a sign like that? Sure.  But the sign is hardly inconsistent with teaching people that littering is a nasty, anti-social practice.  So is being late picking up Jared from pre-school.

And of course there were blood donation and organ donation.  People were talking about these blood donation studies 25 years ago when I was in law school.  I'm all for a market in organs and blood too.  I think I should be able to enter a futures contract for my eyes, liver, heart and anything else of value. Why not?  I could use the money and somebody out there could use my eyes, if I am so rash as to get in the way of Mom's Escalade as she's on the way to her spa.  As far as I can tell, the argument against selling futures in my now-no-good-to-me eyeballs is, "that would be icky!"  Well, maybe.  Call it the gift of sight or call it my eyeballs flying about in helicopter-borne iceboxes:  whatever its aesthetics, it's still necessary to save people's lives.  If the claim is, we would have fewer organs to go around, that's a claim worth testing.  It probably would make sense to test out an organ market in some limited setting to see what actually happened.  But if it's just a bunch of waffle about undermining the values of the community, eh, I'm not very impressed.  What I really think it is is that some people just really don't like markets, even more than they don't like people needing new eyeballs but there being none to be had.  So some poor sod has to shuffle about with a cane because some unaffected people think a market like that would be just too icky.  And we eyeball sellers are supposed to be the ones with dubious morality.  

Needless to say, the Professor allowed himself a lot of lattitude to criticize our culture as having become far too market oriented under the sway of unnamed parties, but I assume he was referring to the Evil Republicans, economists, Ronald Reagan, etc. etc.  But I have a hard time taking meta-cultural criticism of markets too seriously from someone who doesn't recognize a price that's too low when he sees one.  Gary Becker's proposal that there be a market for immigration rights came if for criticism, as did various programs that pay kids to read books.  Horrors.  Amanda should read her Tolstoy for sheer joy of learning, not for money!  Yet unless I am much mistaken, professors get paid to write books, so why shouldn't the people who have to read them get something out of the deal as well?  How many professors would really write books if they got nothing out of it?  If giving kids prizes, monetary or otherwise, gets them reading, what's the big deal?  Hand wringing about this was pretty hard to take.  I taught one of my kids to swim across the pool in one day using chocolate treats, as if he were a dog.  It worked.

I don't think I'll be tuning in for the rest of the lectures, though if I were paid enough, I would.  I do think there are worthwhile criticisms out there of the effects markets can have on morality, and I think it probably makes sense to have some laws that prohibit certain kinds of markets or require people to be more public spirited than they would otherwise be.  But arguments such as Professor Sandel was making make me worry somebody's fixing to take somebody else's freedom away.  Very little appreciation in this lecture that I heard of how markets increase human freedom and all that makes possible.

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Tom Smith


It seems rather redundant to hire some galoot from Harvard to peddle what is anyway a standard BBC line. These bloody immigrants taking our jobs, eh?

Posted by: dearieme | Jun 14, 2009 3:14:45 PM

Scratch an anti-market argument and you will usually find a control agenda. "Market" is merely a metaphor for widespread individual choice. People who want to impose their own choices on others generally don't like competition.

Posted by: Jonathan | Jun 14, 2009 7:17:23 PM

My wife tells me that for a long time in Russia there were tickets to ride the bus, but no one collected them or checked them. You were supposed to buy a ticket and stamp it on a little machine yourself. Supposedly a conductor _could_ come on the bus, but they almost never did. But the buses had signs that said "Your conscience is the best conductor." In fact, the conscience of the average Russian citizen turned out to be a lousy conductor indeed, and eventually they put conductors on the bus, when they had to start earning their way a bit more.

As for Sandel, I assume, or at least hope, that this talk was just intro and he'll say something better and less obviously crappy later. I certainly wasn't impressed with this bit. But I'm not so sure that he finds Republicans to be evil, as he was on Bush's national bioethics advisory board, among other things, and his general line fits in quite nicely with certain lines of Catholic and conservative thought.

Posted by: Matt Lister | Jun 14, 2009 8:25:19 PM

I suggest the august Prof. Sandel interrupt his deep-thinking for just a few moments to ponder, on a much less nuanced plane, where his salary comes from. Someone somewhere had to earn a profit in the course of baleful commerce in order to provide Harvard with the money, that's where. No markets, no profits; no profits, no donations and no tax revenues; soon, no humanities professors to criticize freedom and markets. Now there's an irony for the post-moderns to lecture about.

Posted by: Fiddler | Jun 15, 2009 6:43:43 AM

We might flip Sandel's day-care example back on him. Suppose that we did as Sandel seems to suggest and not impose fines but try to make it a collective norm that one ought not be late to pick your child up from day care. But developing collective norms, especially among a "community" as dispersed as day care parents, is a tricky thing. Suppose that one Wyndham Langford III has a Very Important Business and picks his kids up every other Thursday (because he reads the NYT and knows that he has to do his share - Buffy has her tennis matches those evenings, anyway). What's to stop Wyndham from thinking that his Very Important Business is, in fact, more important than 30 minutes of some day care worker's time? So, instead of hurrying out of a meeting, he lingers, networks a bit and waltzes in at 5:30 instead of 5:00. After all, he's a Very Important Person.

The flaw in Sandel's argument (and it's been a flaw in his arguments for 25 years)is that he assumes that you can just design institutions to reshape people's norms but without appealing to their self-interest. He just sort of wishes that away. But against the dedicated self-seeker, he's powerless. And some poor schlub has to sit with Wyndham's brats and not get paid any more because he's a Very Important Person with a Very Important Business.

The day care that cared for a lot of doctors' kids where my wife did her residency charged $5 a minute. Rounds were done by 4:50, sharp.

Posted by: Bryan | Jun 15, 2009 7:11:25 AM

I bet Sandel has never thought about where Harvard's money comes from, or how its endowment has been undergoing a severe beating in the past year. And of course this knowledge gives him no right to speak about anything. What is this about? How about a more intelligent response to his ideas, as opposed to implying that he's a Marxist or something?

Posted by: Ray | Jun 15, 2009 11:58:57 AM