Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not Everything Should Have A Price

Michael Ignatieff, professor of politics at the University of Toronto, makes an important case in The New Republic for why we should begin to see our society not exclusively as a market for consumers, but as a political community for citizens called a republic, that uses markets when appropriate.  This allows for an appropriate division between private and public goods, something that is becoming increasingly obscured by our new world of wealth and money.

A liberal theory of public goods, backed up by a morally persuasive rationale for progressive taxation, also needs a story about generating growth through public and private investment in the skills and the capabilities of citizens. Without a theory of growth, a politics of virtue runs into the objections that Adam Smith leveled against Rousseau two hundred years ago. Virtue without growth equals stagnation and autarchy. All told, this looks like the minimum program for Sandel’s politics of virtue, but none of it is remotely practical as long as there are no effective limits on money in politics. As long as money is moralized as speech, and not understood as power, there is little chance that the republic can put money in its proper place.

Without a politics—of redistributive taxation, public goods investment for growth, and rules controlling money in politics—any critique of what money has done to American life is just moralizing. We did not drift into this new world of money or arrive here by accident. Powerful interests have carried us here, and it is up to the people acting together to take their republic back. A society is not a market. It is a political community. Restoring the virtue of its citizens demands a politics equal to the challenge of virtue’s enemies.

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