Machan’s Archives: Sandel’s Distortions

Machan’s Archives: Sandel’s Distortions

Tibor R. Machan

Some people lie without any hesitation. To bring lies to print, however, you need more than liars–you need editors who want the lies to circulate, good and hard.

Harvard University political theorist Michael J. Sandel is well know as a critic of the American political tradition of individualism, not so much by forthrightly disagreeing with its principles but, more often, by caricaturing what they actually are. He is a well published professor, with numerous scholarly books and papers to his credit. In recent years he has gone pop, though, with appearances on various television programs and articles in popular magazines.

Sandel is renown for misconstruing individualism as nothing but some fanciful vision that champions isolation, social alienation, and some sort of artificial self-sufficiency that can do without friendship, family, and community. If you think I am exaggerating, let me quote from one of Sandel’s recent articles in The Atlantic, which is itself an excerpt from his latest book, Democracy’s Discontents. Here is one thing he tells the reader, this famous, well positioned scholar of political theory: “The traditional Republicans are uncritical advocates of the free market, free trade and the global economy and at the same time they pose as advocates of community and family values. But it is precisely unfettered markets which are now most responsible for the breakdown of community and traditional values. Walmart, not big government, is responsible for the demise of Main Street across America. But most Republicans won’t face up to that contradiction.”

This passage contains so much distortion that it is difficult to pick which to expose in a brief commentary. But let’s try.

Traditional Republicans have never been uncritical champions of free markets. From Lincoln to Gingrich, all have agreed to massive government intrusions on the economy, advocated innumerable favors for big business, would not think of abolishing farm subsidies or repealing the interstate commerce clause of the US Constitution. Traditional Republicans have often been complicit in protectionism, even while giving some lip service to free trade. This was true with Reagan and Bush and is still true with many Republican members of Congress. There is no such system as an “unfettered market” anywhere in sight, in any goods or services trading in this country–government regulations from those enacted by city councils all the way to the federal government make sure of that fact and Professor Sandel knows this very well. Finally, the reason that Walmarts, Targets, etc. are overrunning the United States of American and every other nation is only partly a function of some efficiency they provide. Another reason is that small businesses are unable to cope with the thousands and thousands of government regulations. They haven’t the capital to fund teams of attorneys to figure out what they may and may not do or mount law suits in case they are found to be in violation of some of the millions of rules governments have decided they must live by.

Professor Sandel knows all this, of course, but he is not after offering some kind of objective understanding of American commercial or political life. He, like so many of his left-communitarian cohorts, wants, instead, to create an impression about the polity of liberty. Never mind that he needs to engage in massive distortions in order to achieve this, starting with maintaining the myth that America is true to its free market ideas laid out in the Declaration of Independence. But Sandel does not care about truth, only about his utopian communitarian vision. For the sake of realizing the dream of a well regimented collectivist society, in which the community they think all ought to be made a part of will be imposed on everyone, like it or not, they are willing to commit any kind of intellectual malfeasance. And it seems his cohorts have enough manuscript readers at the presses which publish them not to be called on the carpet for doing so.

Maybe what Professor Sandel ought to do is team up with Oliver Stone and pen some fictional accounts of American economic and political history.

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