Smoking is popular in the Czech Republic. When the Czech government considered raising the tax on those cigarettes — the very ones that kill thousands of people each year — major cigarette corporation Philip Morris was very unhappy.
Philip Morris presented a cost-benefit analysis on the effects of raising the tax on the national budget. The cigarette company explained that, although it's true that smokers impose greater medical costs, those costs are only applied while they are still alive. Once they have died — from, say, lung cancer — those costs are no longer applied. As smokers generally have lower life expectancies, having more smokers actually increases the national gross domestic product.
Thus, Philip Morris presented its findings: Raising the tax would actually reduce the country’s GDP. Specifically, each smoking-related death saved the government $1,227. However, the study failed to include the costs imposed on the smokers and the families as a result of smoking.
The public went wild with outrage.
Michael Sandel, political philosopher and Harvard University professor, told this story during his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Amphitheater.
His lecture, the fifth and final in Week Two’s topic on “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good,” focused on inequality and the disinclination to address morality in political policies as barriers to reaching the common good.
“What passes for political argument too often consists of shouting matches on cable television and talk radio, ideological food fights on the floor of Congress,” Sandel said. “So the question I’d like to ask today is: How can we do better? How can we elevate the terms of public discourse? How can we reach for a new politics of the common good?”
Inequality is rising.
If the U.S. population were listed in order of wealth, the top one percent has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, Sandell said. Furthermore, he said the average CEO makes more money in a day than the average person makes in an entire year.
“(Some people say) we don’t have to worry so much about the redistribution of income and wealth in this country because, unlike Europe, we believe in mobility,” Sandel said. “You’re not stuck where you begin. We believe in the ability to rise. So it matters less, the argument goes, that there’s an uneven redistribution of income and wealth if people can rise by their own efforts.”
At this point, someone in the audience yelled, “If.”
The problem, Sandel said, is that this isn’t the case.
Those born into the bottom quintile on the income scale have a 42 percent chance of remaining in that bottom quintile for their entire lives, Sandel said.
Furthermore, there’s only a six percent chance that those born in the bottom quintile will rise to the top quintile — and the top quintile is only considered upper-middle class. With a college education, that number rises to 19 percent.
“The single biggest determinant of where you end up,” Sandel said, “is not college education; it’s where you were born. The best way to land on top, now, is to have the good judgment to be born to parents who started on the top.”
America, he said, is no longer the “land of opportunity.” That title deserves to be given to Denmark, he said, because Denmark has the most promising statistics of rising income levels. France, Spain and all the Scandinavian countries have better chances than America.
He used the imagery of skyboxes in sports stadiums as an illustration to this widening rift between the rich and the poor. When he was younger, Sandel said, everyone — no matter their income levels — sat with one another in stadiums. Today, the rich are able to sit “segregated” from the poor.
This rich-poor gap makes democracy less effective, he said. The rich and the poor are leading very different lives and therefore want different things. The issue here, he said, is that not everyone is represented.
Morality in public discourse
Sandel said another obstacle is the reluctance or fear to utilize moral and spiritual means in public discourse. He said that the disagreement in terms of morality and spirituality means those are not welcome in politics. Sandel doesn’t think it should be that way.
“When you bring morality or spiritual questions into public light,” he said, “the argument often goes, ‘That’s a recipe for intolerance at best, and maybe for coercion. We don’t want that. We’re going to keep morality at arm’s length.’”
He said those same people view shouting matches and the like on broadcast stations as examples of that very same unrest. He said it’s the very opposite; it’s the lack of “genuine moral engagement” that creates so much political aggression.
Instead of creating equality by stifling all spiritual and moral ideas, Sandel said equality should be made by including all of them.
“In a politics of moral engagement, it’s a better way of respecting our fellow citizens,” he said, “than trying to pretend that we can conduct our public life without reference to these big moral questions.”
Markets reaching from their spheres
The third obstacle to reaching the common good, Sandel said, is that markets and market reasoning are creeping into areas of sociality that do not use market norms.
Once the Cold War was over, Sandel said, the U.S. saw that capitalism had prevailed. This “market triumphalism” gave the impression that market thought was the tool for achieving the common good, he said. That thought continued through today.
Through this way of thinking, cost-benefit analysis began to be applied to more than just corporations, such as in the story about cigarettes in the Czech Republic, in which a company tried to put a monetary value on human life. There have been numerous other examples of this as well.
He said the idea is flawed in itself but became more so once the financial crisis struck.
When Sandel explained the facts about the difference in income between the rich and the poor, the crowd erupted into applause.
“You like that? Well, we shall see,” he said, mistaking the applause for approval.
He pointed to a man in the audience. “Why do you like that idea?”
“It’s an expression of the truth.”
“Oh, it’s an expression of the truth,” he said. “Do you like the condition, the fact that it describes?”
“No,” the man said.
“Do you think it’s unfair?” Sandel said.
“Yes, sir,” the man said.
“You do? Does everyone agree?”
And the Amp responded with favorable applause.
Michael J. Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. His latest book is What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel’s other books include Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, among others. His work has been translated into 19 foreign languages. In 2010, China Newsweek named him the most influential foreign figure of the year in China. In 2009, Sandel delivered the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures, broadcast in the United Kingdom and worldwide on the BBC World Service. In the United States, Sandel has served on the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; he is also on the Council on Foreign Relations.