Michael Sandel: A Spirit of Civic Activism

Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel talks to Rob Johnson about the implications of the wave of protests sweeping the U.S. and their role in fomenting a spirit of civic activism.


Rob Johnson:

I’m very excited today to be here with Dr. Michael Sandel, professor of political philosophy at Harvard. And I’m proud to say an affiliate INET who’s done tremendous work for us, including a wonderful course that we made together with our friend, Matt Kulvicki, the videographer, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Michael has a forthcoming book in September of this year called The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Michael, thanks for joining me.

Michael Sandel:

It’s a great pleasure Rob.

Rob Johnson:

Michael, we are here in early June of 2020. The pandemic, COVID-19 has overwhelmed not just the country, but the planet. And my own sense is the unmasking of the many, many challenges that’s been revealed. I guess it makes me want to use your subtitle and say what’s become of the common good and why.?

Michael Sandel:

Well, thank you Rob for the question. And for INET. The pandemic reveals it doesn’t so much bring into being as reveals the way we’ve organized our economy and our society and our politics. And what’s gone wrong with the way we live together? Since this pandemic began, we’ve heard a slogan. We’re all in this together. That’s a slogan of solidarity. We hear it from politicians, from advertisers, from celebrities. And that slogan to me doesn’t so much describe a fact or a condition. It poses a question. Are we really all in this together? Or does the pandemic reveal the effect that decades of widening inequality have had on our common life?

And when we talk about reopening the economy, however fitfully, contentiously. For me, the real question is not when we should reopen the economy. But what it is that we should reopen. I think the inequalities that this pandemic have made palpable include the fact that those of us who can work from home remotely are experiencing this in a very different way from those workers who are really at the front lines. Not just in the hospitals. But in the grocery stores, warehouse workers, delivery, workers, sanitation workers. We now call them essential workers. But the way we’ve designed the economy and society doesn’t treat them as essential workers. They often receive the least rewards and the least social recognition.

So I think these are some of the questions that I hope we carry over into a public debate about what kind of economy should emerge from this. And it defines perhaps the biggest civic challenge of our time.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, I’m reminded by the way of all in this together. I remember when Martin Luther King said in reference to the African American condition, “We may have come in on different boats, but we’re all in the same boat now.” When I discussed that on an earlier podcast, I got a lot of comments which said, “What makes you think we’re in the same boat now? Some of us are in rubber rafts, some of us are swimming, and some of us are,” how you say, “In cruise ships or Naval destroyers.” So I don’t know that we’re all in this together. And I think that’s what you were alluding to. And I thought your notion of what it is that we will reopen, and what informs that design, and the notion of essential labor. The poet Ed Pavlic was on with me a week or so ago. And he said, “What’s most interesting is that what is now essential labor is the labor in the shadows. And that nonrecognition, I thought that was not surprisingly, it came from a wonderful poet.” The labor in the shadows.

Michael Sandel:

You mentioned this wonderful praise. Non-recognition. When we look at the effects of the inequality in recent decades, we often focus and we need to focus on stagnant wages. The fact that for all the economic growth over the past three decades, median wages are about where they were 30, 40 years ago. Whereas most of the gains have gone to those on top.

But it isn’t only wages and jobs. The inequality has also taken its toll on social recognition and esteem. Whose contributions are considered worthy contributions, important contributions to the economy. And more broadly, to the common good. And I think one of the reasons Rob, that there is such deep resentment and frustration among many working people and middle class people. And it’s a frustration that issued sadly in the election of Trump. Is not only has the inequality led to stagnant wages. But it’s also led to this lack of social esteem for people who do essential work. Whatever economy emerges from this has to be one that accords greater social recognition and esteem to people who though they may not have college degrees, are performing work on which the rest of us deeply depend.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. And I know foreshadowing your book on the notion of merit, that what you might call the legitimacy of the winners and losers is perhaps a false consciousness. But the kind of populist reaction we have now is the people who do not receive recognition and esteem, but know that they are essential. Feel condescended to, or disregarded and disrespected by those who are said to be not just the winners, but enlightened. Those who are qualified to govern.

Michael Sandel:

Yes. Yes.

Rob Johnson:

We’ve got to change the mindset of what it means to be qualified to govern. And there are people like my colleague Tom Ferguson, who showed the enormous implications of the financial incentives and what I call the commodification of social design on behalf of power. But there are deeper emotional, mental, almost religious and spiritual aspects of the reset of mind that I think is upon us now.

Michael Sandel:

Yes. I think part of what’s happened is inequality has widened. It’s not just that those on top have reaped most of the gains of globalization. It’s also that the gap between winning and losing has grown. And part of the way it’s grown beyond income and wealth even, is measured in attitudes towards success. So that increasingly over the past few decades, those who land on top believe that their success is their own doing. and that they therefore deserve all of the material rewards that are showered upon the winners in this kind of economy. And if they believe that their winnings are their due, as increasingly the successful do these days. Then it’s easy to slide into the thought that those who don’t do so well must deserve their fate as well.

And this leads to a tendency. You mentioned a moral and spiritual dimension of this, Rob. I think it’s partly in the tendency of those on top, of meritocratic elites and the professional classes to look down on those who are not members of the professional classes. Who haven’t been to college. Who have few of the skills that seem to be prized by a high tech global economy. And that attitude of looking down is not lost on those who haven’t flourished in the global economy. People sense that elites are looking down on them, and they rightly resent it. I call this meritocratic hubris. It’s the tendency of the successful to inhale too deeply of their own success. And this attitude toward winning and losing, and the sense of entitlement it seems to have come with it. Makes the inequality more difficult to bear. It adds insult to injury. It makes the inequality about something more than a gap in income and wealth. It makes it about who deserves what, who deserves to succeed. And that I think, that set of attitudes is one that we need to think about even as we debate ways of alleviating the material inequality that’s arisen in recent decades. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

I think Michael, I’m tempted to kind of take a big swipe at the nature of education. It feels like we need a very deep breath in the context of Mr. Floyd’s death and I cannot breathe. We need to breathe deeply the humanities. We need to re-energize the awarenesses of caring. And my own sense is that we won’t be able to flatten out or restructure the hierarchy of education anytime soon. But within a place like Harvard University, where you teach and what you do, redefining what matters as a teacher, as a visionary for these young people, seems to me to be a very important agenda.

Michael Sandel:

Well, you won’t be surprised Rob to hear that I agree with you. I strongly agree with you. Both on what we need to do, but also on the diagnosis of what’s gone wrong, that you’re suggesting. I think that our elite colleges and universities have not provided enough emphasis on moral and civic education of the kind that we desperately need these days to shore up the resources of democratic life. I think we’ve been too focused on a certain narrow conception of the social sciences. A so-called value neutral conception of the social sciences. And the discipline of economics is a major offender in this regard, as you well know Rob, for all the work that INET has done to lean against this tendency.

One of the things I so admire about INET is its attempt to recast economics as a scholarly discipline. But also as a subject, as it’s taught in colleges and universities and schools, back in the days of the origins of economics. Going back from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, to Karl Marx, despite their ideological differences. They shared the assumption that economics was not an autonomous, value neutral discipline. But was a sub field of moral and political philosophy. And I think that what we need to do is to reconnect the study of economics to the humanities, to moral and political philosophy. To questions about what makes for a good society. Economics should be embedded in that broad humanistic project. And the way we teach economics and the way we teach moral and political philosophy in colleges and universities should reflect this connection.

And I think this is an important step toward renewing public discourse, which often excludes very important questions about the economy and about finance. Excludes them in the name of saving them for the experts. This is a technocratic question that the experts should resolve, which leaves democratic citizens unable to debate some of the central questions that shape our society and our economy.

So it isn’t only a matter of how we teach economics, the humanities, more and political philosophy in universities. It’s also a matter of how we debate questions of the economy in democratic life. Our public discourse has been hollowed out. It’s been unduly constrained by the technocratic approach to economy and finance. And this is an anti-democratic impulse, because it prevents democratic citizens from debating some of the central questions about how power is organized, how the economy is organized. And therefore, how the distribution of rewards and social recognition will go. So it’s a vast project, but hard to imagine a more important one.

Rob Johnson:

Michael, I’m very interested. This kind of comes from my having held a plenary in Edinburgh, Scotland to kind of, we called it reawakening of economics in 2017. You were part of that conference. And what I learned in learning about Adam Smith in the 18 months before that, and a bit of David Hume and others is that at the onset of the industrial revolution at the time of the wealth of nations, there was this very deep feeling that governance had been run through an ideological system. That we might call the religious spoil and ethical discourse run by the church. And this was in times prior to the industrial revolution. And I remember I read a wonderful book by Stephen Collins called From Divine Cosmos to Sovereign State: An Intellectual History of Consciousness and the Idea of Order in Renaissance England. But the essence of what I’m getting at is that phrase you use value free. Because as I watched the language from the theory of moral sentiments through the wealth of nations and beyond change. The people who were in public administration perhaps rightfully were afraid to explore moral and ethical discourse for fear of being accused of being part of that corrupted church, which was fostering the wellbeing of the landed aristocracy in a feudal system and oppressing broad number of people.

And it seems to me like we’ve had a habit of pretending. With one exception, which I’ll come to in a moment, pretending that all of this stuff is value free. And the exception is the underpinning value that the market is sacred and solves our problems. So at some sense, we abandoned formal religion. And we took up the scientism style of governance and pretended it was value free

But it also kind of is a religion. And I’ll use a quote to underpin this. R. C. Zaehner at Oxford University wrote in 1959. “A loss of faith in a given religion does not by any means imply the eradication of the religious instinct. It merely means the instinct temporarily repressed will seek an object elsewhere.” And I think your writing and where we stand right now is that that object that was sought elsewhere, the market and the what we call neoliberal paradigm, is being unmasked as we speak.

Michael Sandel:

It’s a fascinating analysis, Rob. And I think that it’s very important to see that the scientistic approach to economics is motivated in part by a desire to detach economic thinking, economic reasoning, economic policymaking from religion. Or from deeply contentious moral disagreements. And this impulse to detach economics from religious, or spiritual, or moral disagreements has a long history, as you say. And it persists today. Today, the form that it takes is not so much a fear of church institutions. But in many ways, the embrace of markets as value-neutral instruments for defining the public good. That embrace is empowered in part by a conviction. And it’s a conviction that runs deep in a certain version of liberal market thinking.

The conviction is this. In pluralist societies, we disagree, citizens disagree about morality, and religion, and values. And therefore, we should try to design the economy and the society in a way that doesn’t take sides. In those messy, morally contested questions. So part of the appeal of a scientistic approach to economics, part of the appeal of market reasoning and market thinking, is the attempt to find a morally neutral or at least a nonmoral contentious way of setting policy.

Now this is a mistake. I think you and I would agree it’s a spurious neutrality that markets offer. And to your point about when implicit religion replacing more explicit religious arguments and positions, the implicit moral philosophy of much contemporary economic reasoning and thinking is utilitarianism of a Benthamite utilitarianism. But the important point really is the one you made, which is an economy can’t be value neutral. Economics as a science cannot, should not pretend to be value neutral. Because any time we make an economic policy decision, anytime we make an economic analysis, even as an academic matter. We presuppose certain conceptions of the public good.

So better to be explicit about those conceptions of the public good. Better to debate rival conceptions of justice, and equality in the public good. Than to pretend that we have either a discipline, a scientistic discipline of economics. Or a policymaking mechanism that can spare us the need as democratic citizens, to engage in debate about the best way to live. But the best way to organize a society and an economy. Those debates should figure right at the center of democratic public discourse. and the fact that they don’t is part of the reason that our public discourse is so empty, and hollow, and unsatisfying these days. And it’s ultimately disempowering. Because the more we relegate to technocrats or to business people who are outside the glare of democratic attention and debate, the less democratic citizens can have a meaningful voice in shaping social and economic arrangements.

Rob Johnson:

Well Michael, there’s kind of an interesting, what I’ll call trick that’s employed with the rough and tumble of capitalism in market economy. It’s viewed as deriving its moral legitimacy by being embedded in a democracy. But what I sense now is that there’s kind of a false debate within economics of do you rely on the market or the state? This is particularly popular in the aftermath of Mao’s China or the late Soviet Union. The state is a failure. The state is corrupt. Or even in the more modern sense of George Stigler, the state will not be sophisticated, etc.

There are governments like Singapore that educate, and budget, and pay their civil servants to be of the highest caliber. That hasn’t been the pattern in the United States recently. But I think there’s also a false consciousness. Not only about this being embedded in a democracy, but there’s a false consciousness when political structures, appointments of officials, laws, regulations, enforcement, become commodities themselves that are bought and sold. And then the democratic system becomes subordinate. So what I’ll call the oligarchic or highly concentrated corporate financial power that can bend the rules to subsidize itself. Can bend the rules so that what used to be tax evasion is now legal tax avoidance. And as wealth becomes highly concentrated, politicians survive by supporting the very wealthy in not paying taxes and then turn to the public and say, “We can’t afford broad based public infrastructure.” There’s a gentleman who’s I have listened to a podcast. I’ve not met, but we’ve corresponded. And he’s Stuart Zechman, he was a musician.

But in 2011, he made a podcast about how the Obama administration envisioned the role of governance. And he essentially heard an official who was an unnamed official, describe how the population had no confidence in government. So we couldn’t go back to the vision of the New Deal with a great society.

But what he came with, this is Mr. Zechman. Was a deep dive into the Gallup polls about why people suspected governance. And it wasn’t that the New Deal was a mirage. It was they felt that corporate and highly wealthy people exercised far too much control over governments. So what we had really wasn’t a democracy, which then makes the moral legitimacy of the embedded capitalist system somewhat significantly less credible.

Michael Sandel:

It’s a fascinating point, Rob. And it brings out the fact that there are really two critiques to be made of the kind of market economies that we have today. One critique, and this was the argument I made in my previous book What Money Can’t Buy. One critique is of markets, even when they are functioning well and fairly, that markets tend to over-spill their proper bounds. That we’ve gradually drifted from having a market economy, to becoming a market society where almost everything is up for sale. Not only material goods, but everything from personal relations to civic life, to votes, to the media, and so on. And according to that argument, the problem with markets is that when they spill across their proper boundaries, then pretty soon we’ve commodified everything in life. Including human relations, social life, and civic life. And that this is corrupting, because it instrumentalizes social life and civic life. So on this critique, it’s important to restrain the reach of markets to keep markets in their place, so to speak.

But there’s a second critique of markets, which is implicit in the points you’ve just made, which I think is also very important. And that is that what we have now is not really a market economy where markets are truly competitive and functioning as markets are supposed to function. We have politically captured market institutions. This is the oligarchic capture critique of markets. And on this critique, the political system has been so corrupted, that the agencies of government, the institutions of democratic self-rule have been absorbed or dominated by powerful economic interests. By finance, and by the industries they’re supposed to regulate. So the solution given that, can’t be to strengthen the regulatory authority of these institutions. If they’re simply going to be dominated by the industries they’re supposed to regulate.

So the first critique is to markets in principle. The second critique is of markets as captured by powerful interests. And I think both critiques go together. But it does raise an important question about whether democratic governance has sufficient autonomy from the power of markets as dominated by finance and by big companies. To be an effective agent for the reconfiguration of the economy. I think that’s an open question these days. And this is a question that should be right at the center of our politics. What would it take to make democratic governance and effective instrument for self-rule? Because if people don’t believe it is, and increasingly they don’t. Then it’s not clear what form democratic voice, democratic self-governance can take.

One answer would be social movements, turning to civil society as a way of mobilizing power. As a counterweight to democratic institutions that are dominated by powerful economic forces. But that’s a debate we need to have. And the fact that people have so little trust in government I think, reflects this.

Rob Johnson:

It does I guess, haunt me a little bit as I hear what you’re saying. Because without the faith that governance can respond to the challenges, fear and despair are heightened. And as we both have read historically, I would say we each have read historically. The temptation towards the authoritarian response when the fear becomes extreme, does not portend a healthier design in the future.

Michael Sandel:

I wonder if I could just add to this, Rob. What we’re seeing today with the protests against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This is an outpouring, the civic protest, an outpouring of popular resolve to do something about a persisting injustice that government has failed to respond to. And one can imagine various measures that state governments, and local governments, and the federal government might take to try to alleviate the seemingly endless pattern of police violence and brutality against blacks and other minority members.

But it’s hard to imagine a policy, a policy change. Whether it’s wearing body cameras, or establishing a federal commission to look into the matter. Or mandatory training. All of these are sensible responses. But it’s hard to imagine any collection of those policies being adequate to this moment and to this injustice. And to this deeply entrenched pattern of injustice.

So what heartens me about the spirit of protest that we are seeing now across the country is that it’s an instance of civil society responding where government has failed. And ultimately, this movement if it’s to have staying power and impact will have to influence government policies. But the first solution will not be a revised government policy. The first solution has to be a public debate and a kind of civic activism that says as so many people now are saying across the country, this deeply entrenched pattern of injustice has to end. And we have to have a public debate about what that means. And partly it will mean policies that must be pressed on government. Partly, it means a transformation of attitudes and norms of a kind that government by itself. Even an effective government, even a trusted government, which we sadly lack at the moment can’t produce. It requires a spirit of civic activism and resolve. And I’m hoping that that’s what this moment will produce.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I think that is what you might call the light to confront the darkness that I described. And that notion Michael, I think as is justified by 400 years of oppression of black people. But its ramifications are much broader than even that.

The scholar Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus at MIT, did some work on behalf of INET. And he wrote a wonderful book called The Vanishing Middle Class. And in that book, he describes what has become a dual economy. And I’ll be kind of simplistic to illustrate the point. Most of the economy now is in the service business, about 30% are employed in high margin services and are paid well. about 70% are in low margin services and are not paid well and do not have stable positions upon which to build a life or family. And the necessary condition to use W. Arthur Lewis as a model. He talked in his famous paper that earned him the Nobel Prize, about how people had to move from agriculture to industry. Well in the modern analogy, they don’t migrate from the farm to the factory. They migrate through the education system from low margin to higher margin activities.

But what Peter demonstrates quite clearly in his book is that there is a adverse feedback loop studied geographically within the United States. Where the geography of economic despair is highly correlated with the geography of racial animosity. And when it comes to votes and restructuring of the education system, while only about nine percentage points of those 70 in the lower margin services are black people. That other groups, Caucasians in particular, vote against putting the runs in their own ladder to allow them to achieve what you might call the direction of opportunity that our new economy potentially would afford.

And we’re seeing this having ramifications not just for the productivity in the economy, but what you might call the collective intelligence in democratic tradition. The awareness of civics, the awareness of many things that would make our potentially more soulful and stronger. So I think going back to the attitudes and norms, they’re dreadful for the people of color. But they’re poisoning all kinds of dimensions of our society.

Michael Sandel:

I think the point you make Rob about sources of civic education is enormously important. Because that’s one of the way we reach attitudes and norms. And I think we make a mistake to assume that the only site of civic education must be schools, colleges, and universities. Formal academic settings.

Now, I very much believe that these places should be sites of civic education and moral and political reflection and debate. But if we think about colleges and universities, it’s important to remember that the majority of Americans don’t have a four year college degree. We should expand access to college and higher education. I’m all in favor of that. But we make a mistake to assume that the solution to inequality and the solution to racism is simply to try to get more people to go to college. We have also at the same time to ask how we can promote civic education beyond the campus gates. How can we build civic education into the fabric of community life?

Back in the late 19th century, the Knights of Labor. They were one of the most important labor unions of the time. One of their demands was for beyond hours, and wages, and better working conditions. One of their demands was for reading rooms in factories, so that workers on their breaks would have an opportunity to read newspapers and books. And to reflect, to learn about public affairs. To reflect, to discuss, and to be effective democratic citizens.

I love this example of a labor demand for reading rooms in factories, in places of work. Because what it suggests is a vision of civic education and learning, civic learning. that is not restricted to formal academic settings. We have less and less of that these days. In part because public spaces, public institutions have been shrinking given the privatization of leisure and of community. The way we organize communities. But I think these occasions have also been shrinking because of our single-minded preoccupation with higher education as the sole avenue to advancement and civic education. I think we need a broader notion of democratic intelligence, of democratic education. It should not be reserved for the citadel of higher education, important though colleges and universities are. We need, I think, to re-conceive the scope and the reach of democratic education with the idea of cultivating a broad, civic, democratic intelligence. This was the pride of American society in the 19th century when Tocqueville and other observers from abroad came and tried to describe what was distinctive about the democratic condition in America.

The answer had not to do with equality of income and wealth, not primarily. It had to do with a sense of confidence. Confidence in a kind of broad equality of condition. Such that people who worked in factories, on farms, in towns, all had the kind of education that could enable them to stand tall. And not to observe any sense of hierarchy with regard to their supposedly betters. This is what so struck European observers. and we’ve lost that. We’ve lost the sense that democratic education and democratic intelligence needs to be diffused throughout the society, not located only or exclusively within academic institutions. Does that make sense to you, Rob? Do you think that’s a plausible ideal?

Rob Johnson:

Yeah, I think it’s a broad based and absolutely necessary to which might call enrich the democratic awareness. Or, I’ve done some work with a group called Scholas Occurrentes who are based in Argentina. And for 20 years, have worked with Pope Francis. I’m going to use my word, but their interest is in creating something for those who don’t go to college or may not go to college between ages 15 and 18, which I might call econo-civics. Meaning this is not about, though it’s important. It’s not about household management, and budgets, and those skills. It’s about a comprehension of what the economic system does do to the society in which you live, both for good or for ill. But it is intended to inform all citizens, regardless of their ultimate destination and education. About what matters to the quality, the design and the quality of their life.

Michael Sandel:

That brings to mind a small story, experience I had a few years ago, Rob. When I was in Brazil, I was in Rio de Janeiro. And among other things, I had an opportunity to visit a community in a favela. One of these hillside massive slum dwellings in Rio de Janeiro. And I met with a group of mainly young people in a community center. And their community was, because there was such violence in the favelas that the government had sent in, basically created a military occupation of this community. So we had a discussion, a very lively discussion about the meaning of citizenship. Contending with violence, questions of justice, questions of civic voice. It was a very impressive group of young people.

And there was an older fellow who was kind of a leader for them. His name was Reginaldo. And Reginaldo was telling me his story. He grew up in the favela, still lives there. And he was illiterate he told me, until he was 25 years old. And he made his living as a trash picker, going door to door picking stuff out of trash bins that were usable or could be sold. And one day he came to a trash bin and found a torn portion of a book. And he pulled it out, and he was puzzling over whether he could make some sense of it.

And the owner of the house came out and asked him what he was doing. Turns out the owner of the house was a retired professor. And this was an old book that he had thrown out, portion of a book. The trial of Socrates. And the fellow who owned the house began teaching Reginaldo how to read using this book of Plato, the Socratic dialogues.

And soon enough, Reginaldo learned to read and began reading Plato. And then began teaching the young people in the favela. Not only in the reading of Plato, but also to apply what he was learning about justice, to the circumstances in which they lived.

And this struck me. I found this deeply moving. It’s an example of the love of learning, but also the civic impact that this kind of learning can have. An impact that at its best is not confined to a classroom, but that spills out into community and to everyday life. And at its best can prompt reflection and active engagement that is democratic citizenship at its best.

Rob Johnson:

That’s fascinating. How would I say, it’s hard not to believe in a deity when somebody finds that sort of book. That’s a lovely, lovely story. Michael, I think on the world stage of, now there is how he say, has been on the horizon. But we will return to the questions related to climate change. And in the context of climate change, I think there is an essential awareness for a need. I don’t know if you want to call it global governance or global cooperation. But at the center of that process are probably three countries. The United States, India and China. And I know in the last couple of years, you’ve done a lot and written a book called, or edited the book which you contributed to called Encountering China.

I remember once hearing Zbigniew Brzezinski talking about that the problems of the world were quite daunting. He spoke in a Montreal meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. Because he said, “The world is now awakened.” He was referring to the financial crisis. Everybody is sensitive to politics. And with the advent of social media, there’s a much broader array of stimulus. But the most important thing he thought is we went from a G7 North Atlantic Cartesian enlightenment governing of the world to a G20. That the clash or the, I won’t call it even compatibility. But just the difference in philosophical systems presented a formidable challenge.

In your work on Encountering China. And I saw from the book that you’re sometimes commenting on their thoughts, and sometimes they’re commenting on your framework. How do you see that challenge of the United States and China making efforts to be compatible given their different philosophical systems?

Michael Sandel:

It’s an enormously important question that’s going to go along, the answer to which will go a long way toward deciding how the world will fare in this century. In the Encountering China book that you referred to, I was engaged in dialogue with scholars of the Chinese philosophical traditions, Confucian and Daoist. To explore points of contact similarities and differences between my philosophical perspectives and those of Chinese philosophical traditions.

I think there’s a growing interest in China. And I base this also on travels there and engaging with young people there. A growing interest in trying to develop a public philosophy that can help make sense of the world in which they live and which all of us live.

Many of the moral and spiritual sources of the very rich Chinese philosophical tradition have been eclipsed. First by Mao in one way, and more recently by the turn to the market economy in another way. Young people especially in China whom I’ve encountered have a sense that GDP alone can’t provide a source of meaning for a society. And they’re looking for something deeper, something bigger, oriented to values. So I would describe it as a spiritual quest, and one that I find heartening, and moving, and powerful. The results are very much up for grabs, what the results will be. But I do sense a spirit of searching, especially among the younger generation in China. Whether they will be given scope for the expression of that sense of searching is in question now sadly. But we’ll have to see how things unfold.

I would like to go back to the earlier part of your question just now Rob, about global governance and how plausible a prospect that is. I think it’s true that in the ’90s and early 2000s, it was almost an article of faith that the only way we would deal with climate change and other challenges would be to involve some form of global government. But I think that at least by itself, that’s an unrealistic way of thinking about climate change or the other big challenges we face. Part of our problem is that we’re not very good at governing ourselves closer to home. Our systems of national and state and local governance are struggling. And part of what we’re seeing in the discontent with politics and with government is a sense that these institutions of government have become unresponsive to the aspirations of citizens.

So what I think we need even before we can aspire to global governance, is a better kind of public discourse. Including one that has some global dimensions. Which goes back to this dialogue with Chinese philosophers. But it’s also something that I’ve experimented with in a series of programs that I’ve done for the BBC called The Global Philosopher. Where we bring together using technology, we bring together participants from around the world. In some cases we had participants from as many as 40 countries joining in a discussion, enabled by technology, of some big contentious questions. Including we did one on climate change and who should pay for climate change. We did one on free speech. And most recently, we did one on pandemic ethics. because sadly, this is now a global and universal concern. How to navigate the ethical dilemmas raised by the coronavirus pandemic.

And what strikes me in those dialogues is that there is a tremendous hunger among people. And many of them have been weighted toward younger people, people in their twenties and thirties. A great hunger to engage in a better kind of public discourse. A richer, more morally engaged kind of public discourse. Than the fare offered up by talk radio, and cable television, and political parties.

And the discussions that we’ve been able to have across national borders suggest to me that there is a prospect, a realistic prospect of global public discourse if we can find the right platforms, and venues, and occasions. And from these discussions, if we could spread them and build on them, I think we could generate not so much consensus that’s not the aim. But a basis at least for discussion, and dialogue, and disagreement, and debate. A kind of global public discourse is a first step toward shaping attitudes and norms that will enable us to contend with climate change. The shapes that a just global economy should take. Another immigration being another that we had a session on.

So this is where I would begin. Not with institutions of global governance, which invariably are remote from citizens, and have not provided any effective vehicle for citizens’ voices. But to find ways within civil society to amplify citizens’ voices, ideally in discussions across national borders. At least that’s the kind of experiment that’s seemed to me the most promising. And maybe from that in time, we can address some of these deeply contentious questions that set us apart.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. I find when I, what you might call explore the confusion about governance. The INET Commission on Global Economic Transformation that your colleague Dani Rodrik, and Joe Stiglitz, and others are focused on. It almost seems to me that with local governance, the representatives can be sensitive to that which is affecting the body politic, the community around them. But they don’t have the means to change the circumstance. And with global politics, global governance, everything is under one roof potentially for planet earth. But they don’t have the sensitivity to where the real problems are.

And I see a number of people, Raghuram Rajan at Chicago Business School is talking about something different than governance. He calls it the third pillar in his book, which is civic organizations at the local level which are highly sensitive. Becoming a third source of power along with economy and governance.

Michael Sandel:

I think this is very important. I think he’s on the right track. Sorry.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I was going to just conclude by saying I just think that this dilemma that this commission has been exploring is very, how would I say. It’s hard to resolve, but it’s very illuminating to see it from that perspective.

Michael Sandel:

I think it underscores the point that we were discussing earlier Rob, about the indispensability of civil society. As a venue, as a site for the kind of political engagement that neither markets nor governments make possible.

We tend to think of government not only as a set of institutions that enact policies, but also as the site of political debate. We have elections, we have debates leading up to the elections. Those debates are covered on television. People can watch.

But that leads to a blinkered notion of democracy. It leads us into the lazy assumption that democracy consists mainly of voting on election day. Now voting is enormously important, especially in the U.S. at a time like this, as we contemplate the November election. But it’s a mistake I think to consider that democracy is mainly about voting during elections.

Democracy depends on cultivating citizenship. And that requires civic education. It requires opportunities actually to engage in activity. Whether at the local level or beyond, it gives citizens a meaningful voice. The protests that we’re seeing and that we’ve discussed are one example. But so is the kind of civic engagement and activism that takes place in quieter times. Often at the local level, but ideally in ways that gesture beyond the particular place. The town, the city, the locality. Toward wider horizons of moral and civic concern.

So I think if there’s to be a source of hope. Not to say salvation, but at least of democratic hope. It lies less with markets and with government than with revitalizing civil society, and renewing democratic public discourse, and broadening its reach. So that we can engage with neighbors, with the fellow workers. But also with the national community. And ideally engage with those across national boundaries. So the institutions of civil society, the forms of civic engagement that can take place there. Together with a broadened, more morally engaged kind of public discourse. These I see as a source of hope. For democratic renewal, more than trying to design institutions of a global governance on the one hand or casting our fate to markets on the other. That seems to me that only the best source of hope, Rob. I don’t know whether, do you see it that way? Or how do you view it?

Rob Johnson:

I see it similarly. And I’ll refer back to your earlier comment about the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. And the protests are how we say demonstrating a communal civic action. And it will probably spread to many different issues. With a name like Robert Johnson, you got to talk about the crossroads now and then after the Old Blues.

But we’re at a crossroads right now. And what I think is an issue, this is what you might call hope versus despondency. The demonstration of civic action can bootstrap greater confidence and greater civic action, as long as people are not cynical that how would I say, their ideals will be heard, but not acted upon. If that despondency arises. Or even more severely, if a despondency associated with the outright repression. Somewhat like the encouragement that President Trump was giving to the 50 governors a couple of days ago. I think that that deep seated despondency is very dangerous and sends us on the spiral as Robert Johnson would say, towards a deal with the devil.

So I think the only path is the one you described. But there are a lot of dimensions to creating the follow through that is going to take both in this country and around the world, a great deal of emotional strength to realize.

The philosopher Jürgen Habermas to be paraphrase, used to say, “Elites will legitimate if they ca, coerce if they have to, and accommodate if they must.” Legitimization is destroyed right now. We’re at the fork in the road between coercion and accommodation. In a Gandhi-like, a Dr. King notion, one of King’s late essays. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community. Those are the beacons that I see. And you describe as the way forward.

Michael Sandel:

Well Rob, I hardly agree with that. I’m deeply grateful for this conversation. And more than that for the work that INET has done to broaden the reach of economics, to connect it to the humanities. And to a broader notion, a more generous notion of civic life. And a measure of that breadth of vision and generosity of vision is that INET in your work have now wandered so fruitfully and suggestively into a consideration of the moral and political crisis that we’ve been ourselves confronting today. But I very much liked the spirit of ending this conversation on a promissory note of hope. And it seems to me, reflecting on our conversation that the conversation at least has given some shape to what that hope might look like. Resting more powerfully on the activism, the rising demand for a better kind of politics that we see in the aftermath of this latest outrage and injustice. A broader kind of civic education, of civic activism. A better kind of public discourse. And a rejuvenated civic life. As we emerge from what are dark times. Not only of pandemic, but also of injustice. I think those sources of hope are ones that we need to nurture and develop as the heart really of democratic aspiration. So thank you Rob, for all that you’re doing to help make these discussions and these conversations possible.

Rob Johnson:

Well, your words are very kind. And Michael, you were one of the greatest contributors to INET’s mission. I want to mention to you in closing, mention to our audience first, that you and I will be back towards the end of the summertime. Who knows when we go back to school, but before Labor Day. And we’ll make a detailed exploration of your forthcoming book The Tyranny of Merit.

But the thought I want to share is that I am hoping to make a podcast in the next few days with a very powerful woman activist, whose name is Elaine Brown. She was a musical artist, and she was the first female chairman of the Black Panther Party. And in preparing for that, I was reading one of her speeches last night. And I have just finished reading a book that a friend of mine encouraged me to read by a man named Og Mandino, called The Greatest Salesman In the World. And both of them, Elaine Brown and Mandino inciting the ancient teachings that helped one become a salesman. Said that activism and change can only come through love. And it is my view that you exude an unyielding loving nature. When you’re speaking, when you’re working with us at INET, when you’re writing, and when you’re defining your purpose. So thanks for being there. Thanks for helping us. And I’ll see you again before September.

Michael Sandel:

Thank you, Rob. That means a lot.

Rob Johnson:

And you mean a lot to me and to us. Bye bye.

Michael Sandel:

Bye bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.


About the Guest

MICHAEL J. SANDEL is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. His recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, takes on one of the biggest ethical questions of our time: What should be the role of money and markets in our society?