Monday, July 20, 2009

Michael Sandel Lecture

I just returned from a lecture by Michael Sandel at Chautauqua. Sandel is a Political Philosopher at Harvard. The premise of the lecture was that the United States, over the past thirty years has slowly and without question, consideration or debate, shifted from utilizing a Free Market Economy to becoming a Free Market Society.

Sandel marks the beginning of this transformation with the Reagan/Thatcher era in which Gov't was the problem and the free market was the solution. Sandel is not, however, making a partisan stand with Democrats, for he then suggests that Clinton/Blair, while perhaps making some modifications, really followed this same assumption.

The key question for Sandel is 'Should market values be applied to all questions of the Common Good?' Should we answer 'Of course not!' Sandel then highlights a number of areas in our society where Market Values are applied to Common Good questions, such as; Immigration, Health Care (for profit Hospitals), War (where in Iraq the number of private contract and therefore, for profit participants outnumber military participants) Law Enforcement (where Sandel noted the vast increase in private security compared to public law enforcement.) Education (for profit schools) and Prisons.

Sandel's major point is not necessarily that market values are always bad or wrong, but simply that we have begun to apply them to all areas of moral reasoning without considering the consequences. Market Values do not always fix the problem according to Sandel and he illustrates this basically in an instance where a pre-school was experiencing a high rate of parents being tardy in picking up their children at the close of the day. So they applied a financial fine to those who were late, which in effect is appling a market incentive to correct a negative behavior. After the fine was imposed, the phenomena of late arrival by parents increased instead of decreasing, as so many parent apparently assumed that now they were simply paying for an increase in service.

Some practices (bearing children or reading for instance) have a good that is implicite. Applying and market value, a sum of money to those practices changes not only the practice but also the way that we think about the practice itself according to Sandel. He highlights another example, which was quite controversial, about surrogate mothering. His suggestion was that applying market value to the bond between mother and child, or the use of a womb, implicitely changed the way we think about family, parenting, and even the human body (at least, this is what I heard him suggesting.) He specifically highlighted the booming industry of surrogate mothering in India, (an instance of out-sourcing, since women provide cheaper 'labor' through the renting of their wombs, in India than in the west. I will blog more later... but I have to go buy a Sandel book and have him sign it... oh, and I have to eat lunch.

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