Column on Hail Sandel!

Hail Sandel!

Tibor R. Machan

Thomas Friedman, prominent New York Times columnist, recently penned a kudos to Harvard University professor of government Michael J. Sandel because Sandel received some fine notices recently in China Newsweek (not part of the American publication). Friedman could hardly contain his glee since Sandel’s ideas are the opposite of those of the American political (Lockean) tradition.

In a column of mine a while back I wrote this: “One famous scholar who finds this [that we have rights but no innate obligations] very annoying is Professor Michael J. Sandel, so much so that his recently published, Justice, What is the Right Thing to do? [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009] based on his very popular PBS TV and Harvard University lectures by that same term, begins with a frontal attack on libertarianism [a la the late Robert Nozick]. Sandel’s central complaint is that libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has unchosen obligations to society. The famous American and classical liberal idea that government must be consented to by the governed is tossed aside for this reactionary idea that when you are born you are already legally ensnared in innumerable duties to others which, of course, government is authorized to extract from you. The idea, most forcefully defended by the French father of sociology, Auguste Comte, is a ruse and used mostly to make people into serfs, subject them to involuntary servitude, however noble sounding the sentiments behind it.”

It is simple enough to see why a government-sanctioned Chinese publication–kind of like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or Izvestia–approves of Sandel’s ideas. They certainly serve to rationalize state power over the citizens of a country. If you and I are born with positive duties to others–God, the world, the majority, that government, whoever–and government is the enforcer of obligations (as when it enforces those created by contracts), then citizens are clearly servants. Involuntary servitude is then every citizen’s proper role. And government gets to make sure that this service that’s due is efficiently and promptly extracted from us.

Professor Sandel champions these ideas not from a society with a strong statist tradition in its politics and law but from the United States of America which is associated with the classical liberal/libertarian political tradition. So now Chinese communists need not invoke Marx, Lenin, or Mao, whose reputation has plummeted in recent decades, so as to buttress their public policy of coercion against the citizenry. They can point to a famous Harvard University American political philosopher instead. Here is a star academic from the leader of the free world, as the US used to be called, endorsing what is normal practice in statist countries, ones where natural individual rights are denied and rights have become government granted privileges. (Another famous American academic who see things this way is, of course, President Obama’s friend and former University of Chicago Law School colleagues, Cass Sunstein!)

In the American tradition government’s just powers are supposedly derived from the consent of those whom government governs. As the Declaration put it, “to secure these rights [i.e., those negative one’s the Declaration lists], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” Which clearly implies that (a) our rights don’t come from government but must be secured by it, and (b) the government’s authority is based on the citizenry’s consent not on some kind of innate obligation government must collect on by subjugating the citizenry.

Now this bona fide American idea cannot possibly sit well with the Chinese authorities. It is far more likely that those authorities will endorse Professor Sandel’s notion where the citizenry’s consent is not necessary to impose various obligations on them to come up with labor and resources for the government to use as it sees fit. (Which, of course, means for other people, a select few, to do this!)

And the folks at The New York Times, including regular and very prominent columnist Thomas Friedman (constantly feature on PBS’s News Hour and by Fareed Zakaria on his GPS CNN program), cannot but be pleased with Sandel, just as the Chinese communists are, since they also hold that government is supreme and the people are born with numerous unchosen obligations it must enforce.

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