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The Public Philosopher: Sharing The American Dream

Tuesday 30 October 2012, 08:50

Mukul Devichand Mukul Devichand

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Editors note: You can hear The Public Philosopher on Radio 4 at 9am on 23 and 30 Oct 2012. Here, Mukul Devichand who worked on the programme with Professor Sandel talks about the issues raised in the second programme. PMcD

Professor Sandel

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," President Obama proclaimed to a crowd in Virginia back in July.

"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."

"If you've got a business - you didn't build that," he continued. "Somebody else made that happen."

For many Republicans, including Governor Mitt Romney who goes head to head with President Obama in the polls next week, this remark became symbolic.

They took it to be proof of President Obama's pro-redistribution, anti-business - indeed, un-American values.

"The President supports redistribution. I don't," Romney said. "It's never been a characteristic of America."

These remarks came after Romney made a gaffe of his own. Secretly filmed, he was heard to attack 47% of the US population he said were living without paying federal income taxes.

For this week's edition of The Public Philosopher with political philosopher Prof Michael Sandel, we challenged a public audience at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to look on these statements by Romney and Obama not as gaffes - but as moral positions.

"Who built It?" we asked them. "Is the American Dream of individual success a myth?"

This turns out to be a sharply divisive issue - even in the liberal confines of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located.

And because it was in America, this was decisively not the usual Radio 4 fare on the question of welfare.

Our audience looked at healthcare reform and redistributive taxes through the prism of moral arguments.

From a British perspective, the arguments presented were strangely unfamiliar. From the very beginning, everyone in the room talked not about the common good, or shared responsibility - but about freedom.

Libertarians questioned the morality of taking people's incomes, through coercive taxation, for purposes like universal healthcare.

The opening gambit came from a man who questioned why someone else should ever have to pay for anyone's services and products - like healthcare.

"I am one of the someone elses," he said.

But strikingly, those who supported taxation for healthcare also raised the issue of freedom. Without basic healthcare for survival, they argued, is anyone truly free?

Prof Sandel noted that in the US debate, liberals as well as conservatives talk about freedom and coercion as the main rationale for their approaches.

Libertarians and conservatives argue that governments are wrong to take away people's incomes for redistribution - which they say contradicts American values as set out in the Constitution.

But liberals counter by quoting the Constitution themselves: without certain basic access to healthcare, education and so on, they ask, is an equal democracy truly possible?

Prof Sandel pointed out that this split goes way back in American history.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt argued for his "new deal" reforms using the freedom argument, rather than the "common good" arguments used by British and other European social reformers.

"Necessitous men," said FDR, "are not free men."

  • But what do you think?
  • Does a welfare state limit everyone's freedom - or enhance it?
  • Is it morally right to tax the successful?

Mukul Devichand is a Senior Broadcast Journalist in News and Current Affairs, Radio

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    Nobody raised the argument that too extreme a welfare state can undemine the incentive to work, as is being addressed in the UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    On the issue of healthcare, regardless of freedoms, who do you trust more: Global healthcare corporations worth billions and with billions used to lobby, charging extortionately high prices for a poor healthcare service, or an accountable government?

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    Comment number 4.

    An interesting discussion about redistribution. But no one seemed to notice that we do redistribute and it is from the poor to the rich. After a recession the national cake gets smaller yet the percentage share of the reduced cake increases for the rich and decreases for the poor. When the economy grows, the national cake gets larger; the percentage share for all grows but the percentage grows more for the rich than the poor.

    We have created 3,000 millionaires via the national lottery, where did the greater than three billion pounds come from? The pockets of the poor maybe?

    When it is suggested that we should redistribute from the rich to the poor perhaps it should be framed as giving something back.

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    Comment number 5.

    Government was and is a 'protection racket', but one which is desired by those it serves. The four pillars of this model are Police, Army and Justice, underpinned by elected law-makers.

    When governments go beyond these basic requirements, they must do so with caution if they require additional coercive taxation. Each step along that slippery path moves government further towards 'provider' rather than just 'protector'.

    The UK is in a terminal decline as a result of redistributive policies and employment laws that can make us so uncompetitive that buying overseas (imports) are often the choice that consumers make.

    Overseas jurisdictions that afford little in the way of redistributed tax income as welfare entitlements. Little in the way of emplyment protection laws.

    We are content to fund our lifestyle of welfare and employment protection by borrowing on international bond markets, collateralised by the government's ability to jail citizens if they do not pay taxes.

    This money will have to be paid back to fund this luxurious level of personal comfort by the next generation.

    Never has a egregious financial fraud been perpetrated by one generation on the next.

    Our kids will hate us.


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