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Market or Forum?

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Colin Bird

on 26 April 2016

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Transcript of Market or Forum?

Market or Forum?
Michael Sandel
Sandel represents a communitarian position very similar to Tawney’s.

The ‘moral vacancy’ he detects in modern society is the result of the same phenomenon with which Tawney was concerned. Like Tawney, he thinks that we have moved from a situation in which we view the market economy as a means, a tool toward other, more important, ends, to one in which the market has colonized more and more of social life.

Market thinking, according to both, 'crowds out' serious moral discussion. The market is agreeably nonjudgmental about values: easier to let market demand decide difficult moral questions for us.
Thus Tawney describes an 'acquisitive society', obsessed with individual rights to the detriment of other values, in which serious democratic discussion of the functions and purposes of productive activity gets lost.

Sandel's way of saying the same:

We've moved from 'having a market economy' to a 'market society' in which the logic of the market has extended deeper and deeper into all aspects of daily life. This displaces serious, sober, discussion of the good life, questions about how to live well, etc.

Thinking of 'selling yourself'.
Sandel, however, focuses on an aspect of this tendency that Tawney doesn't mention very much. For Tawney, the worry is mainly the way in which rights-talk makes us inarticulate about the functions and purposes that ought to guide human association.

But for Sandel, an important vice of 'market societies' is that they encourage us to value things in the wrong way.

They encourage us to think of valuable objects always as commodities of some kind, things that can be priced, bought and sold.

In many cases, commodification
demeans or diminishes
goods. To treat some things as commodities corrupts our apprehension of their worth.
In a central range of cases, Sandel's worry about commodification is surely uncontroversial:

rape, slavery, human trafficking, abuse, exploitation

It’s best to think to think of this worry as about the way in which people should be valued: to ‘commodify’ a person is to value them in the wrong way. This is at least partly what’s wrong with slavery.

We mark this in ordinary language: 'pricelessness'; 'invaluable'.

Kant: persons have 'Dignity' not 'price'.
Recall, though, that of course some free-market enthusiasts strongly agree with this general line. Think of Nozick on rights and forced labor. Far from rejecting Sandel's anticommodification view, Nozick defends the market in the name of anticommodification.
Things get more controversial, of course, when we move away from thinking about the value of people, and about the value of other things.
Body parts?
Works of art?
Historic landmarks?
Beautiful landscape?
Love? Sex?

In the social and political sphere, many (including Sandel) say that the same prohibition on commodification ought to apply to: punishment; jury service; and VOTING.
Brennan's argument is made against a presumption that is defended in the larger book. That presumption is that citizens have a duty to vote morally.
Jason Brennan has recently made an interesting argument to the effect that this prohibition on buying and selling votes could be relaxed. So his arguments can serve as an interesting test case for these claims about the category of social goods that Sandel thinks should not be bought and sold because to do so would be to debase them
Like other rights, the right to vote can be exercised in better and worse ways. For example, we recognize that rights can be exercised in prudent and imprudent ways.

You have a right to refuse certain vaccines. In many cases, that is a foolish decision.

But rights can also be exercised in more and less morally acceptable ways. You have a right to your fortune; you could spend your money on worthy causes: you can choose to support racist political parties; you have a right to speak freely, but you can say offensive, outrageous things.
Note that these kinds of cases differ from ones in which you have no right to do certain things. I don't merely exercise my rights poorly when I murder someone. I act without
any right at all

There is a difference, then, between
having a right to do something and then exercising it in a morally problematic way
right to do something in the first place.

Note that there are some ambiguities about the line between these. Consider 'you have no right to be angry at me right now', or 'I have every right to be angry'. Hard to know into which category to put such protests.
Brennan’s background view, then, is that the right to vote can be exercised badly or well, and the purpose of the larger book from which your assignment is drawn is to inspect the various ethical issues surrounding the public activity of voting. (compulsory? Duty to vote? What does it mean to vote well? Etc.)

The part of this background that’s immediately relevant to the chapter on buying is his claim that citizens are under a duty to vote in a nonself-interested way; if they can’t vote for a candidate/policy that they think will advance the common good, they have a duty to abstain. Brennan asks us to accept this as a premise for his discussion in this chapter.
So, note already, that although B is arguing from a strongly pro-market position, he is in many ways making important concessions to a nonmarket view:

he does
think (as e.g. Schumpeter sometimes appears to) that it is OK for citizens to behave exactly like consumers on a market, seeking to maximize their own advantage. (Nor presumably, does he think that political parties should behave in an exclusively self-interested way); although he’s not a deliberative democrat, he could agree with a good deal of Ack/Fishkin’s critique of ‘civic privatism.’

So Brennan's view about the ethics of voting is intermediate between Schumpeter and the deliberative democrats; in some ways overlaps with Goodin's.
Note further that his position is less radical than one might expect. He preserves a significant part of the conventional wisdom about the wrongness of buying and selling votes:

1. Brennan denies that ethical voting can be enforced by law; he accepts existing

2. He also accepts that
a. It is not appropriate for citizens to
their vote for money
b. It is not appropriate for citizens to
their vote for cash
The form of ‘vote selling/buying’ to which he’s open rather involves 'paid performance'.

If I pay farmer Jones to plant barley instead of wheat in her field, I am paying for a performance: I’m not asking her to forfeit her rights to her land, nor am I asking her to transfer her land to me.

I’m just offering her cash to do something with her land that I’d like her to do. (Suppose I’m an environmentalist and I want to give her an incentive to plant more eco-friendly crops)
B wants to generalize this sort of model to the case of voting. What if (e.g.) you’re politically apathetic, ill-informed, and suffer from poor moral/political judgment; by Brennan’s lights, you ought to abstain. But suppose I am a political expert, a person of sound character, exceedingly well-informed, etc. Why (B asks) isn’t it OK for me to offer you money to use your vote well?
Our question:
is Brennan’s argument about voting an example of market thinking run amok, as Sandel would have us believe?

Or does it reveal Sandel’s worries about the corrupting effects of market thinking as sentimental hogwash?
Brennan's discussion is a bit ambivalent on this:
on the one hand, his defense of vote selling is very qualified; note, too, that he seems to agree in principle that if it led to oligarchy, it would be wrong
on the other hand, he has little patience for the idea that votes are 'civic sacraments' that have inherent 'dignity' or are 'corrupted' if sold.
Should we accept Brennan's account of vote buying as 'paid performance'?

His argument depends on an analogy with various forms of service provision in which an agent
owns a resource, a capacity, or quantum of energy
could use or not use those resources as they wish
but in which they might be willing to accept payment to forgo their own wishes as to how (or whether) it should be used

Brennan suggests that prostitution is a similar case.

But I think that his prostitution analogy raises many problems.....
Doubts about the Prostitution Analogy:

1. Not a great analogy if one wants to stave off Sandel-type doubts: surely sexual intimacy
be corrupted if it was always something that was thought of as a service to be bought or sold, even e.g. within relationships/marriages

2. Brennan's discussion of prostitution focuses exclusively on the possibility that selling sex is bad for the seller (exploitation, coercion etc.). So, he sees nothing wrong with high-end escorts if truly voluntary. Fair enough but what about the buyers?
a. Usually men; rarely in the market for morally good reasons (usually engaging in deceit and are often morally pitiable)
b. Feminist arguments about the underlying attitudes toward women presupposed in the conduct of men who seek the services of prostitutes. (NB the issue for Brennan here is moral rather than legal)
The fact that there is usually something morally problematic about buying sex from a prostitute (even if the prostitute isn't forced or coerced into anything) suggests that it's a bad example for Brennan's argument.

He needs an example in which the buyer acts in a morally praiseworthy way (bc his case is one in which I (legitimately) buy your vote bc I might direct you to use it more ethically than
you would be likely to if you voted on your own judgment
would be the case if you simply abstained)

Prostitution is not obviously that sort of case.
Perhaps a better sort of case might be financial advisor, or someone selling solar panels:
You have a roof, or a sum of money to invest. You sell me the use of your roof, or your money, to place solar panels on, or to invest in certain ways.

But this isn't a good analogy, either: in these cases, I don't pay
to put solar panels on your roof, you pay me to put them on.
I pay you to provide me with financial advice. Financial advisors don't pay me so that they get to invest my money as they think I ought.

These examples help us to see appreciate the oddness of Brennan's suggestion that one with good political judgment might offer you money to vote as they advise.
This is weird in at least 2 ways:

1. Why would I pay you to accept my advice on how to vote if I can't verify whether you followed through? A secret ballot is not like a fallow field.

2. The voter in Brennan's account is seeking good advice: she wants to know how to cast her vote. Doesn't the fact that someone is willing to pay me to follow their advice give me a reason to doubt the reliability of their advice? Why would they be offering to pay if they weren't hoping for a (personal) return on their investment?
this seems to me a nonmysterious way in which Brennan's proposal is corrupting. It corrupts trust in advice
the worry becomes more pressing still if we imagine voters being wooed by more than one buyer
We can come at this from a different angle by considering another category of cases:

judges presiding over a trial
legislators lending support to a bill
professors grading papers

describe these as cases in which the agents concerned 'possess' a certain power (to rule in court, to participate in legislating, to grade students etc.).

But surely we would resist the idea that it is appropriate for others to pay judges/legislators/professors to use their rulings/parliamentary votes/capacity to assign grades as those others might wish.
This looks like bribery, even if the person offering money is motivated by good ethical reasons.
The important feature of these other examples (legislators, judges, professors) is that voting/ruling/grading are

It would be a dereliction of responsibility for legislators, judges and professors to offer their 'powers' to vote/rule/grade to others. These aren't really their powers to give up: they have been
with those powers.

Shouldn't we think about voting in the same way, as something we
to citizens?

Note finally that there is a difference between offering money to
a person to vote in a particular way and offering an incentive to people to exercise their vote.
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