Why we shouldn’t trust the markets with civic life

You know that feeling when you’ve been bumping up against an idea, something that you’ve been thinking about for a while in a muddled sort of way – and then someone comes along and spells it out so beautifully that it’s like a light bulb goes off over your head? That’s how I felt watching Michael Sandel’s Ted Talk: Why We shouldn’t trust the markets with our public life.

“We’ve drifted, almost without realising it, from having a market economy to becoming market societies.”

“The more things money can buy, the more affluence – or the lack of it – matters…when money comes increasingly to govern access to the essentials of the good life: decent healthcare, access to the best education, political voice and influence in campaigns; when money comes to govern all of those things, inequality comes to matter a great deal. “

“With some social goods and practices, when market thinking and market values enter, they may change the meaning of those practices and crowd out attitudes and norms worth caring out.”

There’s a lot of heat and not much light in the press right now about capitalism and socialism – particularly when trying to figure out Ed Miliband. I think that’s more to do with his attacking of vested interests and accepted market assumptions than any principled concern that we’re a breath away from communism. He hit the nail on the head with his attack on the profits of energy companies.

I’m not a fan of his – nor of David Cameron or Nick Clegg – but I think he has hit a nerve. The truth is this: while economists quibble about 0.1%  of growth and whether this means we had a double-dip or a triple-dip recession, and celebrate that economy is recovering (on balance sheets anyway) – down here in the real world, people are hurting*

I see my energy bills soaring but energy companies posting record profits. I see the same thing going on in rail, water and eventually, the NHS. The idea of the common good resonates with me – especially now – and I think the press obsession with the binary capitalism/socialism dividing line is a way of dodging the more difficult questions – which need some answers.

The truth is that not everything is for sale. The private sector can’t do what the State should. It’s there to make a profit, which is fine, but the State has a mighty big lever it can use (sparingly) to level inequality – though it’s not the only tool – and that matters because we don’t all start from the same point. And we all benefit from what previous generations left behind. As Obama clunkily put it:

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

I don’t have the answers and the press is having a 1980s ding dong rehashing the old arguments about political systems (spoiler alert: capitalism won and is still winning) but Sandel’s has (one) of the big questions:

“In the end, the question of markets is not mainly an economic question. It’s really a question of how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”

*STILL hurting. Some since 2008, many since before then.

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