Should "price gouging" after a hurricane be illegal? Should television's Judge Judy make $25 million a year, while the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, makes $217,400 a year? Should a professional golfer with a bad leg be allowed to ride a golf cart in tournaments? Should the Purple Heart be awarded to soldiers who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder?
These are some of the questions that a professor of government at Harvard, Michael Sandel, explores in his book Justice, based on his popular Harvard College course of the same name.
It's lively stuff, as far as political philosophy goes, and, as far as commenting on current events goes, it has the advantage of clearly exposing the broader principles that undergird many of our political debates, including many of the debates aired regularly at FutureOfCapitalism.com.
Mr. Sandel keeps his own views mostly in reserve until the end of the book, devoting himself instead to summarizing and explaining the theories of others. Much of this will be of interest to those who view the government role skeptically, and illuminating even for those who don't. "The standard case for unfettered markets rests on two claims – one about welfare, the other about freedom. First, markets promote the welfare of society as a whole by providing incentives for people to work hard supplying the goods that other people want…Second, markets respect individual freedom," Mr. Sandel writes.
Writes Mr. Sandel: "If the libertarian theory of rights is correct, then many activities of the modern state are illegitimate, and violations of liberty. Only a minimal state – one that enforces contracts, protects private property from theft, and keeps the peace – is compatible with the libertarian theory of rights." For background, he directs readers to other books, including Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose (co-authored with Rose Friedman). He also cites his Harvard colleague Robert Nozick's conclusion, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that "only a minimal state, limited to enforcing contracts and protecting people against force, theft, and fraud, is justified. Any more extensive state violates personal rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified."
Writes Mr. Sandel: "The libertarian sees a moral continuity from taxation (taking my earnings) to forced labor (taking my labor) to slavery (denying that I own myself)." Mr. Sandel doesn't note it, but I couldn't help remembering myself, as the author of a biography of Samuel Adams, that Adams made this point long before Hayek, Friedman, Nozick, or Mr. Sandel, back in his 1764 "Instructions of the Town of Boston": "If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?" (Adams's political philosophy is more complex than pure libertarianism, because it also places a priority on virtue, but that's another story.)
The book even goes beyond Friedman, Hayek, and Nozick to other free-market-oriented commentators. In the section on price-gouging after a hurricane, for example, Mr. Sandel devotes two paragraphs to summarizing Thomas Sowell's argument that, among other things, higher prices for ice, bottled water, generators limit the use of those scarce commodities and increase incentives for suppliers to provide them. In a section on reparations for slavery, he quotes Walter Williams, an African American economist: "If the government got the money from the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, that'd be great. But the government has to take the money from citizens, and there are no citizens alive today who were responsible for slavery."
Mr. Sandel has some interesting observations to make, too, about the financial bailouts and the populist backlash against them. "Americans are harder on failure than on greed," Mr. Sandel writes, quoting President Obama, who said, "This is America. We don't disparage wealth. We don't begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we certainly believe that success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset – and rightfully so – are executives rewarded for failure, especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers." It's a reminder that the debate over the bailouts and government economic policy certainly needn't be limited to economists, but that political philosophers also have useful insights.
Mr. Sandel gives an equally respectful hearing to critics of libertarianism, including those, like John Rawls, who argue that distribution of income and wealth under a libertarian system is unjust because it rewards arbitrary qualities like genetic talent, birth order, or being born into a caring or wealthy family.
Mr. Sandel eventually makes clear that he himself tends to sympathize with these arguments: "It can't be said that Judge Judy deserves to make one hundred times more than Chief Justice Roberts;" she's just lucky that she happens "to live in a society that lavishes huge sums on television stars."
The one time I caught Mr. Sandel being sloppy or tendentious with the facts was in a section where he uses some carefully selected statistics to try to make the case that the military is poorer and less educated than the rest of the American population. In fact, the Department of Defense reports, "More than 92 percent of recruits hold a high school diploma, contrasted with 75 percent of the general U.S. population in the same age range" and "about three-quarters of new recruits come from neighborhoods that are at or above the U.S. median annual household income of about $50,000." And a Heritage Foundation analysis found that "low-income families are underrepresented in the military, and high-income families are overrepresented" and that "contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service."
The last 10 pages of the book are devoted to Mr. Sandel's own proposals for what he calls a "new politics of the common good," including things such as "mandatory national service," "a public debate about the moral limits of markets," and more government spending on public schools, public transportation, public health systems, playgrounds, libraries, and museums. A reader can skip these pages and still feel like he's learned from Mr. Sandel's account of political philosophy as it resonates through our modern public debates. Or you can read them and, even if you disagree, you may still think Mr. Sandel deserves an Oppy Award for giving those libertarian thinkers he ultimately disagrees with a careful and respectful hearing rather than a dismissive one.