Michael Sandel’s Reith Lectures.

by Harry on June 9, 2009

A more suitable pick for the Reith Lectures I cannot imagine. Sandel’s first lecture is online here, and if, like me, you’re pushed for time the transcript (with comments and questions from Ed Miliband, David Willetts, Baroness Williams, Oliver Kamm, and someone called Owen) is here. The bio for Sandel contains this surprise:

A more unusual claim to fame is that Professor Sandel is believed to be the inspiration for the nuclear power magnate Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons cartoon.

Anyway, feel free to discuss Sandel’s first lecture. Cohen seminar rules apply (i.e., read the bloody thing before commenting — unlike Cohen’s book its free, short, and an easy read).



Matt 06.09.09 at 8:12 pm

My understanding is that Sandel is said to have inspired the _looks_ of Burns on the Simpsons, but not his behavior. I’m not a huge fan of Sandel, but I don’t think he would be easily cast as evil and incompetent (That’s Allan Bloom, I think.)


Paul Gowder 06.09.09 at 8:20 pm

I’ve heard the Monty Burns story about any number of people.


Matt 06.09.09 at 9:28 pm

After reading it, a bit on the substance on the issues I know the most about (immigration and refugees). I assume that Sandel’s views are more knowledgeable and complex than he indicates on these issues (he only briefly mentions them, so that’s certainly possible. If not, he shouldn’t talk about them.) But, the presentation he gives on both is quite misleading, I think. First, he discusses a proposal by Gary Becker to auction admission slots. If I recall correctly, Becker did not suggest this be the only way to gain admission to a country, but one way. We already do this in the US (and many other countries do as well) to a limited degree. The clearest example is the so-called “Millionaire visa” that provides an immigrant visa to someone who will invest $1,000,000 in a US business that will employ at least 10 US workers (or $500,000 in an “underdeveloped” area of the US.) There are very few takers for such visas. But _all_ immigrant visas require a showing that the would-be immigrant won’t become a public charge (usually via an affidavit of support, if this is family-based immigration), and all immigrants are ineligible for means-tested federal (and often state) benefits for at least 5 years. So, only those who can afford to be self-supporting are allowed to come in. It’s not quite selling spots, but it’s not completely divorced from it, either.

Secondly, he discusses Peter Schuck’s idea for refugee “burden sharing” via a scheme of agreed on burdens between societies and tradeable quotas. He doesn’t give it much time in the talk (nothing gets much time) but he’s awfully cavalier about it, saying that it might negatively change the way we feel about refugees and the like. But it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse for most refugees, millions of whom linger in squalid camps for years or more in impoverished countries that cannot tend for them. This seems very much a case to me where any concrete suggestion to improve the system is preferable to the sort of moralizing that Sandel at least suggest here. Unless he has something positive to suggest (he gives no indication that he does at all, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong), then it seems very that his worries about the commodification of refugees is something that only one for whom years or even an entire life in a refugee camp is imaginable could afford to worry about.


magistra 06.09.09 at 9:33 pm

Judging from the transcript, not so much a lecture, more the Reith Brief Chat, crossed with rather poor stand-up comedy in the questioning. Just when I thought Sandel was getting interesting (on the fee v fine distinction), he came to an end. As for ‘the better kind of politics we need is a politics oriented less to the pursuit of individual self-interest and more to the pursuit of the common good’, they were saying that in 842 AD, and it wasn’t new then. I hope he gets onto to something more substantial in the rest of the lectures.


dsquared 06.09.09 at 9:53 pm

On the fee versus fine distinction, I would have liked to see him address the “Finnish solution”. The Finns believed that the underlying problem here wasn’t the complicated and nuanced argument that Sandel endorses – it was just the straightforward diminishing marginal utility of money, meaning that the rich tended to over-produce sin because the cost of the fine was less of a burden for them. So they set a tariff for all their fines in “points” which were then related to the offender’s income. This did once result in a senior Nokia executive who had a lot of stock options vest that year being fined the equivalent of US$300,000 for driving ten km/h over the speed limit. I think they’ve either got rid of or attenuated the system these days because of cases like these, but probably a thoroughgoing advocate of market democracy could consistently say the Finns had it right and should have held their nerve.


Tom Hurka 06.09.09 at 10:06 pm

Re #5:

Wasn’t the Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykanen (1988 Olympic multiple gold medals) likewise fined some huge amount for speeding, because of his high income? Go Finland!


theo 06.09.09 at 10:23 pm

being fined the equivalent of US$300,000 for driving ten km/h over the speed limit

I find the system both philosophically defensible and charmingly egalitarian, but as a practical matter, fines on that scale would tend to introduce corruption into the system.

Does anyone know if they ended up capping the fines?


David Wright 06.09.09 at 11:16 pm

I probably qualify as an individualist and market triumphalist, and still I found Sandel’s lecture thoughtful and engaging.

The global downturn certainly provides a cultural and political opening for communitarian ideas. What’s interesting, and dangerous, about communitarianism, is its appeal to moralists on both the left and the right. On the one hand, it may lead to tactial cooperations between those two sides to elevate some of their moral imperatives into laws. On the other hand, it may make the “cultural war” clashes between those two sides more intense, because it removes the libertarian “live-and-let-live” option and replaces it with a “society must decide what is right” attitude.


Rick Karr 06.10.09 at 1:35 am

Only because I learned this today: Shearer based the voice or M. Burns on Lionel Barrymore and Ronald Reagan. Okay, maybe the Reagan part’s a piss-take. But that’s what he’s said.


b9n10t 06.10.09 at 5:14 am

Sandel simply must be popularizing, or perhaps building toward something more relevant. But why popularize to this degree as part of a lecture to an adult, educated audience? For instance, none of the “market fundamentalists” who actually make up the political & business elite engage in libertarian politics (that would be market fundamentalism without the scare quotes).

What Sandel calls “the age of market triumphalism” was an age in which Medicare and Social Security were untouched (yes, a small radical sector of the elite tried to take one of them down and, at the height of its power, failed fantastically), the most dynamic sector of the economy grew directly out of public investment (the internet), while large sectors of the economy continued to be supported by government outlays and subsidies (ag, for example, and public employment itself). Other sectors are similarly circumspect as p0ster children for the triumph of market-norms vs. non-market norms.

Sandel wants to talk about reinvigorating citizenship in the face of…market-based schemes for blood transfusions and refugees? I mean, if you’re concerned about refugee crises, there have been any number currently and in the recent past that stem directly from US foreign policy. The blood crisis, I will admit, remains an area in which I am uninformed. But if he is actually interested in reinvigorating citizenship in the face of something more oppressive, shouldn’t he be saying that, right off the bat?

“Market fundamentalism” or “market triumphalism” will be understood as a political campaign in the very old struggle between social cohesion and social privilege. Actual, socially-embedded markets remain a messy knot of analysis. I don’t understand why this should need to be said, but the fact that it does makes me very suspicious of Sander’s goals here.


Hidari 06.10.09 at 7:30 am

Professor Hubert Dreyfus is allegedly the model for Professor Hubert Farnsworth in Futurama.


John Quiggin 06.10.09 at 9:52 am

“a thoroughgoing advocate of market democracy could consistently say the Finns had it right and should have held their nerve.”

I absolutely say that, though I couldn’t get all my co-authors here to agree to a full scale endorsement



John Quiggin 06.10.09 at 10:02 am

A few points.

1. The snark at the beginning about economists is an odd one. Sandel recapitulates the standard economic orthodoxy distinction between positive and normative science, then complains that economists describe the positive implications of policy, and leave the normative decisions to democratic processes. But if you buy the distinction, that’s surely what social scientists, including economists, ought to do. The usual, and more convincing, criticism is that the claimed fact-value separation is spurious.

2. Kieran will presumably have something to say about the blood donation example, if he gets around to commenting.

3. I found the criticism of emissions permits for CO2 to be totally unconvincing, and not only because of the economic efficiency arguments. The premise of the argument is that emitting CO2 is bad, and that people who do it should be punished. But, on that unequivocal basis, we are all guilty. The problem with CO2 is that some emissions are unavoidable, but our aggregate emissions are much too high. So, we have to find a way of sharing out the limited absorptive capacity of the atmosphere. There’s a pretty strong case that the fairest way to do this would be to give everyone on the planet an equal allocation, and then allow trade (that is, ETS + contract & converge). By contrast, picking some entirely arbitrary allocation and fining anyone who exceeds it seems to lack any moral justification at all.

4. Despite the criticisms above, I agree with the general theme. But like other commenters, I’m hoping for a stronger presentation than this in future lectures.


alanb 06.11.09 at 6:54 pm

Re dsquared@5: The UK also tried this (surprisingly enough under the Tories, in the 1991 Criminal Justice Act), and then also bottled it because it threw up a bunch of cases ridiculed by the tabloids. My personal favourite was the one where one bloke in a street fight got fined ten times as much as another in the very same fight – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4173913.stm.


Nigel Warburton 06.11.09 at 10:27 pm

The Mr Burns story is given in Prospect Magazine here: http://tinyurl.com/d495jg. You might also be interested in the podcast interview I did with Michael Sandel for Philosophy Bites on What Shouldn’t Be Sold on http://www.philosophybites.com.

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Stephen Felce 06.16.09 at 11:22 am

When Andrew Marr asked Michael Sandel “if we need a new kind of citizenship” I think he is right to do so but begs an incorrect premise.

In the past political influence were restricted to the few who had privilege, wealth, power, influence and, though not always, education. Today, privilege is less of a factor but the result is that those with power and influence now more often lack the very best education. Therefore they may not use their authority as wisely as they should.

Many today are ignorant of the qualities of argument that the best philosophers employed, like Aristotle more than 2000 years ago. Take, for example, the current scandal over expenses in the British parliament. If you look at the evidence to Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee at http://www.public-standards.gov.uk/OurWork/MPs__Expenses___Evidence.html, you may be appalled, as I am. Having read through about a third so far, it is dreadful to see how many submissions are no more than self-serving opinions with not a shred of logic or moral argument to support their positions.

So, in fact, I think we need to return to the old kind of citizenship, not for the privilege of a sometimes undeserving aristocracy, but for the quality of argument that was expected.

The contemporary tragedy as the quality of life improves and as technology allows easy communications and therefore we have more discourse, so the quality of debate in public life diminishes towards the lowest level. You have only have to look to some of the leading ancient civilisations and compare them to those today in China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and indeed the West.

I believe that a significant reason for Moslems fundamentalism may be growing decadence in the West. If so I share that concern. Part of the reason for terrorism may be a lack of education, the ability only to argue a case crudely and inappropriately, often not being able to rationalise their case at all.

In short, ignorance is the biggest enemy of civilisation and as the developed world advances (or does it?), so the relative level of ignorance is allowed to increase in direct proportion to greed and avarice. Perhaps if modern man valued philosophy as he should his moral compass would be more in evidence.

So, Professor Sandel, what do you propose to do about that?


Jerry Mager 06.16.09 at 5:29 pm

Thanks for the transcript of the first Reith Lecture by Michael Sandel. It has been of considerable help at my lessons for my own pupils.
Jerry Mager


tony Hurle 06.17.09 at 7:50 am

thank you so much – it is really good to have the transcript and I do hope you will be able to do them all
joy to you and much stamina

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