Column on Sandel’s Misguided Thinking

On Sandel’s Misguided Thinking

Tibor R. Machan

In 2004–not that long before he got to be a TV star on PBS–Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University professor of political philosophy got the enviable job of presenting his views on justice via the support of PBS television to a great number of viewers, made the following observation: "Today, in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking, we are all too tempted to think of democracy in economic terms alone. That is why it is worth asking whether we are a commonwealth still. To put that question at the center of our public debate, we need to remind ourselves of the civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy."

All this sounds very kind and gentle–who, after all, could object to civic goods? Who could find anything wrong with the idea of a commonwealth? These are the marks of civilized society where instead of the rule of force, we have the rule of law. But don’t be fooled. If you have listened to Professor Sandel’s PBS lectures on justice you have by now realized that what the very prominently placed educator actually favors is a highly regimented society, one in which the idea of the consent of the governed is royally demeaned. Instead of choice and freedom, what Sandel champions is order and lock step pursuit of some kind of one size fits all public good that the market allegedly doesn’t sell.

It is scandalous how this man, using a good bit of taxpayer funds, gets to preach his message of collectivism and show his contempt for American values of individualism and liberty all in the middle of the country he seems to dislike and which he seems to enjoy misrepresenting in the middle of his so called educational endeavors.

Just consider the above claim that America is "in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking." If so, how come the majority of Americans elected Barack Obama their president, a man who has been quite up front in his dislike of markets and what he likes to dub the ideology of free markets, not any kind of “market-oriented thinking”? How cam Americans, on the whole, embrace public–government administered and conducted–education from the fist grade all the way to graduate school? How come their only passenger train service is provided by a government funded (and pretty much bankrupt) rail system, Amtrak? And why are they completely complacent about having a government postal service that prohibits anyone else from providing first class mail service? And how come these Americans who are "in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking" did not rise up in protest against the federal governments purchase of General Motors Corporation and bailout of banks and other enterprises that are by no stretch of the imagination market institutions?

What kind of a highly honored educator engages in this kind of rank distortion? Market-oriented thinking my foot! Most Americans, including especially the educated ones and those doing the education of America’s youth, do not like the free market. (I have been in the midst of American higher education since 1965 and have found nearly uniform disdain toward the free market except by some economists who defend it mainly because they focus on which system manages to be more productive, more consumer friendly. As some Russians who came to visit American universities after the fall of the Soviet Union pointed out, there are far more Marxists and near Marxists in American higher education than there have ever been in the Soviet bloc!)

Now, of course, professor Sandel has the basic human right to be wrong about what Americans are in thrall of, a right he seems very eager to exercise. In a free society one doesn’t get punished for misguided thinking except by the reality that is likely to bite one in the butt in consequence of it.

But while Sandel is free to be wrong, the rest of us don’t have to sit at his feet and complacently accept his misinformation, even if it has the prestige of Harvard University and PBS television supporting it. No, we are still free to protest what Sandel is peddling. And we are also still free to point out the specious manner in which he does his peddling, namely wrapping it in the vocabulary of civility and democracy.

Let us, please, not let the man fool us. Freedom and democracy do go hand in hand–it takes freedom for the people to be involved in politics! And freedom is not divisible–you cannot have freedom of religion, speech, and thought without free markets in which books, educational equipment, buildings for churches and newspapers, printing presses, and the labor of educators are available to be purchased instead of conscripted as in the collectivist paradise—a warped commonwealth–that Sandel wishes to impose on us all.

What Sandel has convinced himself of is that he is for the good, the public good, while those who tend to favor the American political tradition are only for human liberty, almost license. But this is bunk.

There can be no human good without human liberty for doing what is good requires the freedom to choose it. Otherwise the good is being pursued at the point of a gun and not as a matter of one’s own convictions, the only way it means anything.

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