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"We have delegated our moral judgment to the markets"
by Michael Sandel
Wednesday Dec 2nd, 2020 6:21 PM
"Yes, we can" was a call to solidarity and common goals. The legend that everyone in America can rise as high as their talents can carry them goes back to Ronald Reagan. Access to education should not be a substitute for policies that directly address the roots of inequality and the dignity of work.
"We have delegated our moral judgment to the markets"
Interview with Michael Sandel

[This interview published on Nov 20, 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

How can Joe Biden reconcile the USA? By finally fighting the growing inequality and the dominant market logic in the USA, says philosopher Michael Sandel.

Michael Sandel: With Mask on Times Square in New York: How does the country find its way out of the division?

"We have delegated our moral judgment to the markets"
The US-American moral philosopher Michael Sandel is a supporter of the Democratic Party, but also one of its greatest critics. In an interview Sandel, who teaches in Harvard, explains what he advises the next president Joe Biden and why the country needs a redefinition of the common good.

ZEIT ONLINE: Professor Sandel, a few weeks ago you said in an interview that your greatest fear was that Joe Biden might lose the presidential election. How do you feel now?

Michael Sandel: I am relieved, but still worried. The Democratic Party has a long way to go if it is to address the grievances and resentment that have polarized the country and caused many working people to turn their backs on the party.

ZEIT ONLINE: You support the Democrats, but you are also one of their harshest critics. You say the party has paved the way for Donald Trump to the White House in 2016. More on this in a moment, but first another question in light of the current situation: When you look at how Trump and the Republicans still refuse to accept the election results and how their behavior might endanger national security - doesn't this overshadow all the Democrats' possible mistakes?

Sandel: Trump's refusal to accept the outcome of this election is in line with all the monstrosities he has committed over the past four years. I am confident that there will be a transfer of power, but it is a sad reality that we have to discuss at all whether an American president will respect the outcome of a democratic election.

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you think it's possible that Trump and the Republicans can still find a way for him to stay in the White House? Are they seriously trying?

Sandel: I don't see how they could still turn the result around. As for Trump, there are three possible explanations for his behavior. First, it is strategic, so he hopes to find a way to stay in office. Second, it's delusional, and he actually believes that he won the election. Or third, it's a performance. That would mean that his only interest is to capture public attention, to make his enemies angry and to motivate his supporters. Of these three explanations, I would say that the first, strategic, is ten percent true, the second, delusional, 20 percent, and the third, that he is putting on a show, 70 percent. Whereby the delusional and the performative often cannot be clearly separated in Trump's work. But I think it's important not to accuse him of having strategic goals when it's primarily a performance. This distinction is crucial when it comes to how one should react to it.

ZEIT ONLINE: And how should one react to this?

Sandel: For Joe Biden it is important not to take Trump seriously. Because the scandals that Trump routinely triggers only work if they cause feverish, fearful outrage. So far Biden has reacted very well, he has refused to show feverish, fearful outrage. He has remained calm and has not responded to Trump's antics. This is the best way, the only way to deal with it. Anyone who takes Trump's behavior seriously, as is evident above all in the coverage of the television stations, turns himself into a kind of indignation machine that reinforces Trump's political show. The media have not understood this in the past four years, and they still do not understand it.

ZEIT ONLINE: In your new book “On the End of the Common Good. How the Performance-Society Tears Apart our Democracies,” you are not merciful with the Democrats. For example, you criticize that Barack Obama used the phrase "you can do it if you try" more than 140 times in his speeches as president. This sounds as optimistic as the campaign slogan with which he won the 2008 election: "Yes, we can". What bothers you about it?

Sandel: The two slogans may sound similar, but they are based on fundamentally different principles. "You can make it if you try" is a strategy to deal with inequality by encouraging the individual to strive upwards. It is an individualistic slogan, while "yes, we can" implies a "we". "Yes, we can" was a call for solidarity and common goals. That Obama moved from this inspiring message of 2008 to his later, individualistic slogan shows all his disillusionment in office. It explains why he did not succeed in transferring the inspiring power of his candidacy to his presidency. And why instead he has offended a large number of people who tried but failed.
"Success is no proof of their moral superiority"

ZEIT ONLINE: Isn't Obama's existence as the first black president proof that there is a true core in his second message as well? And doesn't Kamala Harris, the first female and black vice president of the United States, show that even in 2020 America will still be a "land of opportunity", as she called it in her victory speech?

Sandel: America is a country of possibilities, but the question is whether individual possibilities alone are an adequate principle for a just society. Without question it is important to break down barriers and prejudices that have led to historical injustices. But even if one day we were to succeed in removing all barriers that prevent people from advancing individually, we would still not have a just society.


Sandel: Even in an economic system in which everyone can rise as high as his talents carry him, the question arises whether we have actually earned our talents. And whether those who are successful do so by their own efforts, or whether a large portion of luck is not rather part of it. Take a soccer player like Ronaldo or a basketball star like LeBron James: these athletes are enormously successful, they earn many tens of millions of dollars, and of course they train a lot. But I could train all my life, and I still wouldn't become a great basketball player. So, the question is: Does LeBron James deserve his success? Does he deserve to live in a country that loves basketball? What would have become of him if he had lived in the Renaissance, when society was more interested in fresco artists? You see what I am getting at: the fact that top athletes are successful and highly paid is not their own merit. It is not proof of their moral superiority. It is luck. That is why I warn against meritocratic hubris, against this tendency of the successful to forget the happiness that has helped them on their way.

ZEIT ONLINE: But what you call meritocratic hubris is not only common among democrats.

Sandel: Not at all, it runs through the entire political spectrum. The legend that everyone in America can rise as high as their talents carry them goes back to Ronald Reagan. It was recorded by Bill Clinton, then by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The meritocratic idea that the cure for inequality is individual upward mobility is found among Republicans and Democrats alike. It is almost uncontroversial. But the political price for this idea has been paid primarily by the Democrats, just as populist protest movements against the elites in Europe primarily hit the center-left parties - the Social Democrats in Germany, the Socialist Party in France, the Democratic Party in Italy, the Labor Party in Britain. In all these countries, the center-left parties have lost the support of the workers, who once made up a large part of their electorate.
ZEIT ONLINE: Because they made false promises to them?

Sandel: Because they have relied on a meritocratic, technocratic message that is more in keeping with the values and interests of higher educated classes. The center-left parties have found no answer to the inequality and stagnating wages that have accompanied the globalization of recent decades. It is not enough to propagate individual advancement opportunities through higher education as the only way out. Worse still, it is insulting. The Democrats in the US and the center-left parties in Europe have overlooked what the flip side of their supposedly inspirational message is: you can make it if you try - which means, conversely, that if you don't make it, if you don't have a university degree and can't find a good job in the modern labor market, your failure is only your own fault. That is the dark side of the meritocratic message.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why did the liberals adopt this message in the first place? The idea that the market is a neutral instrument to define the common good, as you write, goes back to conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Sandel: That is a good question. After Reagan and Thatcher had left the political stage, center-left parties came to power in many places, led by Bill Clinton in the United States, Tony Blair in Great Britain and Gerhard Schröder in Germany. But these politicians and their parties did not really question the market credibility of their conservative predecessors. They have only tried to mitigate the brutal consequences of the free, capitalist market economy. Thus, for four decades a market-driven form of globalization was able to prevail, leading to growing inequality. In addition, the same center-left parties deregulated the financial sector in the 1990s and 2000s. Not even the financial crisis of 2008 prompted them to critically question the market beliefs of the Reagan-Thatcher era and the weight of the financial and banking sector in modern economies. They simply stuck with their rhetoric of individual advancement through education.

"The 2008 financial crisis did not come at us like a hurricane"
ZEIT ONLINE: When both sides of the political spectrum are equally responsible for the crisis: Why are the Democrats and other center-left parties being punished by the voters while the right is benefiting?

Sandel: The center-left parties thought that voters from the working class had nowhere else to go, certainly not to the traditional conservatives. But they had not counted on the authoritarian, hyper-nationalist movements that attracted large numbers of voters who felt despised by the elites. In the case of the Republicans, it is of course paradoxical that the party's populist wing, which became the dominant wing under Trump's leadership, attracts voters from the working class, although Trump's policies do little to help them. Trump's populism is, after all, plutocratic populism-the tax breaks, the attempts to dismantle the health care system, all of this benefits not the workers but the rich.

ZEIT ONLINE: Nevertheless, 73 million Americans voted for Trump this time, more than in 2016, and he even gained votes among blacks and Latinos, voter groups that the Democrats certainly believed were on their side.

Sandel: That is true. The Democrats can rightly argue that Trump is a false populist. But that is just not a sufficient answer, because the real source of his success is that he takes advantage of the bitterness of voters without higher education and their feeling that the elites look down on them. As long as the Democrats tell these voters that they can overcome their problems through more education-that inequality and stagnating wages are their personal problem in the first place, not a structural problem--they will not be able to win back these voters.

ZEIT ONLINE: You are a professor at Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Isn't it a little strange that you, of all people, doubt the benefits of higher education?

Sandel: Don't get me wrong - I think that as many people as possible should have access to higher education. It is right to encourage students to study, and even better to make access easier for all those who cannot afford to study. But this should not be a substitute for policies that directly address the roots of inequality and the dignity of work. The fact is that most people in the United States do not have a university degree. It is therefore wrong to orient the economy in such a way that a decent life is only possible with a university degree. And that is why, if the center-left parties want to counter the authoritarian populists of our time, they should not limit themselves to the myth of individual advancement through education, but develop new policies that focus on the dignity of work.

ZEIT ONLINE: But isn't it a fact that many jobs that have been lost in recent decades due to globalization and technological developments can no longer be saved?

Sandel: It is true that the direction in which globalization and modern technologies have moved creates greater incentives for better educated people. But it is a mistake to assume that this development is a law of nature to which we must adapt. That we cannot change the economic system to provide jobs and opportunities for everyone, not just the highly educated. The neoliberal version of globalization is the result of decisions made by the ruling parties. The deregulation of the financial industry was a political decision. The financial crisis of 2008 did not come upon us like a hurricane, regardless of human action.

ZEIT ONLINE: Now it could be argued that hurricanes do not come over us independently of human behavior either.

Sandel: A very good point. Hurricanes, bush fires and floods are of course not independent of human behavior. But while we have come to the conclusion that climate change is not a phenomenon beyond our responsibility and control, we still believe that the world economy is governed by unalterable natural laws.

"Market-based policies are not enough to heal the country"
The White House in the rain - with what goals should Joe Biden move in here?

ZEIT ONLINE: While you were working on your book, the Corona pandemic broke out. The virus has made the split in society you describe even more visible: the educated elites work at home while cashiers and bus drivers risk their health. Does this only exacerbate the tensions, or does it perhaps also hold a chance?

Sandel: The pandemic has not only made inequality in society more visible, but has given it a dramatic quality. I hope that those of us who have the privilege of working at home realize how dependent we are on other workers we tend to overlook. Not only the nurses in hospitals, but also nursery school teachers, supermarket workers, truck drivers. These people do not receive a particularly good salary or recognition, but suddenly we call them "essential workers". We realize how much we depend on them. This could be the moment for a debate on how to better balance pay and appreciation with the importance of work. Whether or not we will use this opportunity for a broader discussion on how to restructure the economy is an open question.

ZEIT ONLINE: What political message would you now advise Joe Biden to give? What can he do to moderate the conflict between progressives and moderates within his own party and to reach the 73 million Americans who voted for Trump?

Sandel: The best way Joe Biden can begin to reduce the country's polarization is to listen to those voices in his party that call for a better response to the growing inequality in society. The technocratic, market-oriented policies that the Democratic Party has stood for so far are not suitable for healing the country. The anger and bitterness felt by so many working people can only be appeased by a new political agenda that focuses less on equipping individuals for meritocratic competition and more on making life better for all people, no matter how educated they are. This, however, requires an open discussion about what is actually a valuable contribution to the common good. Over the past decades, we have believed that the value of work is reflected in how well it is paid. We have delegated our moral judgment to the markets - but the markets are often wrong. We have to argue about what the common good really means. What it means to be a citizen. Unfortunately, so far, I see little evidence that the Democratic Party is prepared to rethink its message and mission as it would have to do if it wanted to govern successfully.

I cannot repeat it often enough, one should read "Authoritarian Temptation" by Heitmeyer.

In it he identically addresses the complexity of the subject matter, which also shines through in this interview. An increasingly repressive capitalism leads to an increasing brutalization of the bourgeois center.
This is where demands for a "return of control" take hold. Supposedly conservative demands such as homogeneity of origin, rejection of hard-won rights to abortion, or the welfare state are suitable for this.
Basically, the brutalized bourgeoisie is exclusively concerned with power participation in order to maintain social status and autochthonous hegemony.
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It should be “relegated”...Peace WitchThursday Dec 3rd, 2020 6:47 AM
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