14 thoughts on “Michael Sandel vs. The Economists”

  1. I did not read Sandel’s work, but read your review. I appreciate your point that paying someone to wait in line benefits the line-waiter and the lobbyist. Paying someone to wait in line for you is not, in itself, “gross.”

    But is Sandel grossed out that paying individuals to wait in line creates a market that prices non-lobbyists out of attending hearings? And are you grossed out by that? I think I am, but honestly, I’m not quite sure.

    Amusement parks are using a model like this, where you can pay extra to have some sort of “gold pass” where you can skip all of the regular people and go to the front of the line. In that case, theme parks have gotten rid of the middle man (the line-waiter) and taken the money for themselves. I’m both impressed with and repelled by it. Good money sense for the amusement park, but man do I hate watching people go by when I’m waiting in line.

    But in that scenario, it’s a theme park. In the other scenario, it’s our government. I think I feel resentful that lobbyists can pay for a “gold pass” to democracy. But I could be persuaded differently.

    1. Sweetie, grow a backbone. People with more money shouldn’t have greater access to public servants. Cheese and crackers. If you don’t even know that that’s wrong, I don’t know what to say to you. Khan is an economist, so I have lower expectations for him going in.

  2. I am quite sure that Sandel understands at least as much about basic economic theory as Mankiw. Honestly, if all you see in the world is money, it’s really not that complicated. Nothing is. Which is why so many of us have so little respect for the economist.

    But if you think access to government is really just another commodity, then you are something else – you are amoral. Why, I ask myself, do I bother reading Kahn?

  3. And you know what? Yes I do oppose congestion pricing. Roads are built on public land that we all collectively owned, and there should be a vote before it’s privatized. Bleep you and the horse you rode in on.

  4. Er, how about reading Sandel’s book? Maybe he has arguments on congestion pricing and the Coase theorem that are not covered by Waldron’s review.

    Your belief that attitudes are not altered by actions is plainly wrong, see Kahneman, Shakespeare, etc. Participating in a morally dubious market (say for blood or babies or access to legislators) is likely to alter our views in favour of these markets, as we do not like to think badly of ourselves. Sandel’s view seems to be that some current markets are corrupting. Saying that you don’t see the harm doesn’t answer: maybe you are just corrupted.

  5. Is it really true that an idea about human behavior not found in economics textbooks must be wrong?

    And by the way, there is no traffic congestion in Cambridge Square, at least not in Cambridge, MA, since there is no such Square.

    1. Mark,

      there are ideas in economics textbooks which, if ignored, lead people to get things wrong.

      Yes, but that’s doesn’t seem to be what Kahn is saying:

      Sandel also appears to believe that participating in markets changes our preferences. If you are paid for giving blood, you no longer offer it for free.

      This idea appears nowhere in any economics textbook I know of and I would like to know what his evidence is for this claim.

      Asking for evidence makes sense, of course, but the statement about economics textbooks is just silly.

      The assumptions about human behavior underlying microeconomics are, as I’m sure you know, not very accurate, and there is ample evidence for this. Indeed, Kahn himself reveals a contradiction in those assumptions of super-rationality in the linked piece. He is disdainful of Galbraith’s idea that advertising influences behavior, because, as he puts it, “In my world, we know ourselves and our goals. We know our resource constraint and we go to the market to purchase goods that help us achieve our life goals while fully aware of the tradeoffs we face.”

      But then why does advertising exist? Are business executives hopelessly less rational than the wily consumers they hope to induce to buy their products? Or does it work? In either case, someone is being irrational, are they not?

  6. A pretty test case – real ones are always better than the thought experiments popular with moral philosophers and economists alike. Muchael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War, 1961, p.15, on French military service:

    The French practice between 1818 and 1870 was to select by ballot, out of the age-group liable, whatever number of men was necessary to make up the size of the army fixed by the Legislature. [….] To draw a mauvais numéro was a shattering piece of bad luck. But the State provided a loophole. The obligation of the individual was not necessarily to serve in person, it was to furnish military service. If he could provide somebody to take his place the military authorities raised no objection. [….] Thus there survived the institution of “substitutes” which was so notable a feature of the French system. Agencies were established to provide substitutes, and conscription became a risk against which one could insure. as against fire, flood or hail.

    On Matt’s logic, the Restoration Monarchy and the Third Empire were quite right, and the US reluctance to create a market in military service obligations (in the days of selective service) a welfare-reducing mistake. The time of the bourgeois young man, and his life measured by discounted future earnings, are clearly much more valuable than those of the peasant’s younger son, right?

    1. The trouble with this is that the all-volunteer army does in fact create a market in miltary service. Those without better opportunities serve for pay. Others pick up the tab through the higher taxes because a volunteer army must be paid more than conscripts. In fact Milton Friedman was an important advocate of a volunteer army.

      Another point is that even in the days of the draft it somehow miraculously happened that the bourgeois young man was less likely to be called than a member of the poorer classes, rural or urban. That may not have been the case so much during WWII, because of the massive manpower needs, but it surely was during Vietnam. The various exemptions, such as college, primarily benefitted the better-off, and they were also the ones with access to dodges such as National Guard service and so on. In effect, an exemption for educational purposes seems really to be welfare-based.

      1. The all-volunteer army is precisely that: there’s no state coercion (though poverty of course has always stacked the deck of legally free choices). This seems distinct from the 19C French model where there was an underlying universal compulsion to serve, just exercised selectively via lottery. Instinctively, a secondary market for a high-risk obligation created by law might be subject to a higher standard of scrutiny than one that simply reflects the standard labour market.
        Republicans (in opposition during the relevant period in France) objected to the system which they saw as morally inferior to the universal conscription of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. When it also turned out to be less effective than the universal conscription of Prussia, they got their way and France copied Germany.

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