Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What isn't for sale?

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in the April Atlantic ( which I just caught up with):


In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.


It means we treat too many things as commodities, entities which can be bought and sold. The fact we don't have a real discussion of the ends of society does not mean we get some anyway by default. Being neutral between ends just tends to presuppose or privilege some particular ends.


He goes on:


This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.


We have to debate the proper way to value many things, he argues, such as civic duty, the environment, health or citizenship. So he is interested in the legitimate boundaries of the market.

And that is something I agree with. You can believe both that markets can be miraculously effective in many ways, and that they are a tool, not an end in themselves. You don't use a hammer to polish your ceramics.

Incidentally, I think the Atlantic is probably the most consistently interesting magazine in existence at present.

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