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Emerging Questions on Liberality and Social Thought

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

I enjoyed and learned from Sandel’s book, which is a far different thing than agreeing with many of the conclusions that he reaches.  I read this book because I anticipated he would consider aspects of morality and markets that I have been writing about and do so in a way that would challenge my conclusions.  I was not disappointed in this expectation.  His challenge was clear enough, serious enough, and unconvincing enough to add to my own reservoir of arguments, few of which I have the space to elaborate here. 

Sandel begins his book by considering the negative public reaction to suppliers increasing the prices of goods needed by victims of a natural disaster, and to the bonuses paid to senior executives by banks which received government bailouts during the recent Great Recession.   These, of course, are two very different situations; one showing how markets work to allocate goods efficiently in the absence of government controls, and the other how problems created largely by government attempts to promote particular economic outcomes can, and often do, create economic distortions that are then used to justify additional government distortions in the economy.  Making this distinction, however, is not Sandel’s concern.  He is interested in justice, and in the three ways of thinking about justice in the distribution of goods—welfare, freedom, and virtue.  After presenting these and other examples as moral dilemmas, Sandel argues that “moral reflection is not a solitary pursuit but a public endeavor” (28) which prompts “us to articulate and justify our moral and political convictions, not only among family and friends but also in the demanding company of our fellow citizens” (29). 

In the next three chapters titled “Utilitarianism,” “Libertarianism,” and “Markets and Morals” we learn that Sandel is not enthusiastic about the first two philosophical positions and is skeptical of the morality of markets.  He sees the libertarian and utilitarian cases for markets as flawed, although giving the impression here that he is only presenting, rather than endorsing these criticisms.  It becomes clear from Sandel’s examples and the emphasis given those arguments, however, that Sandel is convinced “that market choices are not as free as they seem” (75) and “that certain goods and social practices are corrupted or degraded if bought and sold for money” (75). Sandel is clearly partial to the view that freedom is more a function of wealth than of the absence of arbitrary restrictions imposed by force.  For example, when discussing objections to the volunteer army he states “[i]f poverty and economic disadvantage are widespread, the choice to enlist may simply reflect the lack of alternatives….The volunteer army may not be as voluntary as it seems” (82). 

Furthermore, Sandel argues, some things shouldn’t be treated as commodities.  “[M]ilitary service, like jury duty, is a civic responsibility; it expresses, and deepens, democratic citizenship.  From this point of view, turning military service into a commodity—a task we hire other people to perform—corrupts the civic ideals that should govern it” (86).  The “exemption from shared sacrifice comes at the price of eroding political accountability” (86).  This is one of several places in the book where Sandel’s discussion would have  been improved, and balanced, by the insights provided by public choice economics.  Public choice analysis suggests that the volunteer army, which requires potential recruits be paid enough to willingly join the military, may actually increase political accountability, rather than erode it, by requiring politicians to consider the full value of recruits’ alternatives to military service, which they can largely ignore under conscription. 

In the next four chapters Sandel does, I believe, a commendable job discussing the moral philosophy of Kant, Rawls and Aristotle in a straightforward way.  It is clear that Sandel prefers Aristotle’s view of justice (or the good) to the views of Kant and Rawls.  In Sandel’s words, “[f]or Kant and Rawls, theories of justice that rest on a certain conception of the good life, whether religious or secular, are at odds with freedom” (216).  For Aristotle, by contrast, a substantive conception of the good is possible and necessary.  The good is “not about maximizing pleasure but about realizing our nature and developing our distinct human capacities” (216).  Kant and Rawls reject this approach to the good “because it doesn’t seem to leave us much room to choose our good for ourselves” (218).

It is at this point that it becomes obvious that Sandel is a communitarian.  According to Sandel, communitarians recognize a moral obligation individuals have to their communities that goes unrecognized in the liberal tradition that emphasizes individual rights.  As he says, “[i]f the liberal account of obligation is right, the average citizen has no special obligations to his or her fellow citizens, beyond the universal, natural obligation not to commit injustice” (224).  This, according to Sandel,

fails to account for the special responsibilities we have to one another as fellow citizens.  More than this, it fails to capture those loyalties and responsibilities whose moral force consists partly in the fact that living by them is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are—as members of this family or nation or people; as bearers of that history; as citizens of this republic….These identities are not contingencies we should set aside when deliberating about morality and justice; they are part of who we are, and so rightly bear on our moral responsibilities (224).

Deliberating or reasoning together with our fellow citizens is an important part of the communitarian project and seen as the path to a robust and just society.  As Sandel puts it, “[a] just society can’t be achieved simply by maximizing utility or by securing freedom of choice.  To achieve a just society we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise” (261).

But there is a problem here that an academic (Sandel teaches at Harvard) should recognize.  Academics have comparative advantages in deliberating and spending lots of time engaged in discussion and debate, which is surely seen as more important to them than to most citizens.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to understand how a career academic could see much hope in creating a public culture hospitable to disagreements.  In small and homogeneous groups (preferably smaller and more homogeneous than the Harvard faculty when Larry Summers was its president) it may be possible to get a reasonable level of agreement on the details of controversial issues, such as what is acceptable to say in public about the cause of occupational differences between men and women, or how to work together to achieve the good life.  In large and diverse communities, however, the best we can hope for is reaching agreement on the general rules of social interaction within an extended economic and political order.  Given broad support for such a general set of rules, small groups of individuals who are reasonably homogeneous along various attributes and interests would certainly form communities of the type Sandel describes.  Such groups would be bound together by a degree of personal loyalty to, and identification with, one another and their joint values.  The rules of acceptable behavior within such groups would vary among groups and can be more informal than those applying to the interaction between members of the different groups making up the extended social order. 

The family is the most obvious example of the type of community that Sandel finds attractive.  Granted, the aspects of community Sandel, and other communitarians, are promoting apply to communities larger than individual families, albeit with some decline in the ability of personal loyalties to provide social cohesion as the group becomes larger.  But the family unit is instructive because to thrive and prosper it clearly has to integrate into the larger social order in a way that is possible only through a large and extended network of impersonal interactions that depend on the formal rules of private property and voluntary exchange.  These rules do require a significant level of agreement and even a sense of community among large numbers of people, but it is a very different type of agreement and a weaker sense of community than that which is the ideal of communitarians and possible only in smaller communities.

My comments here are not necessarily a criticism of the communitarian project.  Developing institutions that foster a sense of community and that also promote tolerance for the diversity among sub-communities is to be applauded.  My concern, however, is a tendency for people to want to substitute the morality embodied in the rules appropriate for small groups for the morality embodied in the rules necessary to the proper functioning of a vast economic order.  The morality suitable for small groups is an emotionally appealing one, which I have referred to as magnanimous morality in other writings (or the morality of sharing and caring).  The morality required by the larger economic order is the much less emotionally appealing morality of impersonal market exchange, which I have referred to as mundane morality in previous writings and which makes sharing without caring possible. 

To the degree that we try to replace the mundane morality of the market with the magnanimous morality of small communities, the ability of people to coordinate their activities with multitudes of strangers around the world in mutually beneficial ways is eroded.  Yet the tendency to expand magnanimous morality to the larger economy is supported by a widespread view that markets are morally flawed because, no matter how desirable the results of markets, they don’t depend on the personal caring and sharing of small communities.

Sandel’s discussion in his opening example of “price gouging” reflects the tendency to see markets as morally flawed because they don’t rely on the morality of the small community.  Consider his comment: “Greed is a vice…. More than a personal vice, it is at odds with civic virtue.  In times of trouble, a good society pulls together. Rather than press for maximum advantage, people look out for one another.  A society in which people exploit their neighbors for financial gain in time of crisis is not a good society” (7).  This statement clearly has emotional appeal.  But it ignores the important distinction between the rules of behavior appropriate to small groups and those appropriate to large groups.  Anyone bringing food to a sick neighbor, or providing assistance to one whose house is damaged, would be rightly condemned if she demanded payment for her service.  After a natural disaster, however, people need help obtaining the coordinated effort of a large number of geographically dispersed people, almost all of whom are complete strangers and can be considered neighbors in only the emptiest sense of that term.  The help these victims need can be efficiently provided only in response to the information, cooperation and motivation generated by impersonal market exchanges.  Upon serious reflection it is difficult to believe that the assistance natural disaster victims would lose if anti-price-gouging laws were enforced would be replaced by the magnanimous morality of their neighbors.

I readily concede that Sandel’s case for relying more upon civic virtue and less on the “greed” (I prefer the term “self interest”) of the market place will always be more popular than the effort of economists to qualify this case with a dose of economic realism.  But I believe that there is far more civic virtue in a social order that recognizes that the rules, and morality, proper to small groups is not the same as those required by large groups than in one that doesn’t. 

Let me conclude by stating that anyone interested in the political, philosophical and economic foundations of a good society, whether they agree with my criticisms of Sandel’s book or not, will profit from reading Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do and taking it seriously.           

Dwight R. Lee received his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California, San Diego. He has held tenured positions at the University of Colorado, Virginia Tech University, George Mason University and the University of Georgia. He currently holds the William J. O’Neil Chair in Global Markets and Freedom in the Edwin Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

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