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Why I do not agree with Prof Michael Sandel

Posted Jan 26 2014 1:25am

I enjoyed listening to Prof Michael Sandel on his recent trip to India. He is very articulate, so it's easy to see why he is a philosophy rockstar ! He made an important point – that society needs to set limits to what markets are allowed to do.

While it’s true that markets can fail us, I did not agree with this conclusions

When talking about kidney donation, he felt that markets were bad because of the coercive element which is implicit in their functioning.  Thus, very poor  people can be easily exploited by the rich, because they are compelled to donate their kidneys for financial reasons. This is why he suggested that markets should be banned for kidney donation and we should continue to depend upon altruism.

While it can be comforting to take the moral high ground, my worry is that as a result of his advise, we will end up causing even more harm to the poor. By making payments for kidney donation illegal, aren’t we coercing people into not donating their kidneys, even though they may want to. If a person decides that money is worth more to him than his kidney, by preventing him from doing so, isn’t the State also being coercive ? Is it fair to encroach on a person’s autonomy just because he is poor ? His  message is that the poor need protection, which is why we need to pass laws , but doesn’t this also imply that they are too stupid to be able to defend themselves . Is it fair to prevent them from making decisions which they feel are in their best interests ?

He also bemoaned the fact that the rich can now buy skyboxes to watch baseball games, and waxed eloquent about the "good old days" when everyone had to sit on uncomfortable seats in the stands, thus levelling the rich and the poor.

However, rather than think of this as worsening the divide between the rich and the poor, the skyboxes could also be seen as providing aspirational goals for the poor, who will then be willing to work hard and persevere in order to get sky boxes of their own ! Surely this is more desirable than forcing everyone to sit in bleachers !


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