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The Public Philosopher: Sharing The American Dream

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Mukul Devichand 08:50, Tuesday, 30 October 2012

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


  • Comment number 1.

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

  • 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

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Comment number 6.

    Interestingly, a USA audience argues from the point of personal freedoms rather than how we might argue. I suspect we would be saying it is about efficiencies and conflicting personal agendas. We don't argue that paying for public health confilcts with our basic freedoms, we argue it isn't efficient, or people are claiming what shouldn't be given - our agrguements are about distribution of benefits - not whether they should exist at all. Americans seem to be still hooked on a wildly optomistic future of philanthropy filling the need for health care and survival benefits - a policy thatwould take us back to Victorian England. The track record of a charity based society and what that might be like was never discussed - but you can feel the attraction of the rich to a policy of 'keep all earnings and give to charity when you feel like it' - personal freedom to contribute (or not). I wonder what the US armed forces would make of that approach, and other government organised departments the US citizens take as a given?

  • Comment number 7.

    With regard to redistribution of wealth, instead of referring to the super-wealthy such as Bill Gates and Michael Jordan the focus should be on taxpayers of much more modest means (like small business owners) who still are "wealthy" relative to many others and would be called upon to give up what they have earned.

  • Comment number 8.

    @2 Are you seriously suggesting people don't feel like working because they have the NHS? It's an irrelevant question because I don't think we could ever have a minimum unemployment benefit that didn't cover healthcare anyway. The argument that extreme welfare makes people lazy is potentially valid one, but I don't think healthcare is part of that.

  • Comment number 9.

    Do you really "Earn" your money. Does J K Rowling sit down and hand write all her millions of books? Does Wayne Rooney score 1000 times more goals than his colleague in a lower division? Does my CEO work 100 times harder than me?

  • Comment number 10.

    For a country which prides it's self on having so many practicing Christians for whom "loving one's neighbour as one's self" is one of the central tenets I was appalled by the responses of many of the contributors to the debate and their total selfishness and selfcentredness. No man (or woman) is an island and all that.

  • Comment number 11.

    Did listeners notice how ordered and civilised this debate was compared with ours in the UK? No hesitations in choosing a speaker - like "the man in the blue pullover", or "wait till the microphone reaches you", etc. The chairman was equally concise and summarised the debate at each stage with admirable clarity. Nor did there seem to be the hostility or barracking which can often arise in debates here.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hayllar - you are kind of sidestepping the core issues into a private v public issue. Down that route we mighht want to nationalise Microsoft as 90% of people use it and to leave it in private hands in contrary to the public interest. Or renationalise BT, or the utilities. The core arguement is about whether we fund benefits in Health Care, or let our society pay as they go? Should the rich be asked for more if we opt for public funding? Who supplies the service is down the line after the basic policies have been thrashed out.

  • Comment number 13.

    One of the arguments relating to coercion was particularly troubling, that a standard government healthcare system would coerce the recipient into accepting a particular treatment and remove personal choice. Surely this is better that the rather starker choice of having treatment or having no treatment.

  • Comment number 14.

    I try to be a Christian and I thought that a majority of Americans feel the same way. How can anyone who believes in the tenets of Christianity, or indeed most benign religions, argue for a policy which would leave a suffering person untreated because they lacked the means to pay for help which was available? Would those who advocate the latter just pass by on the other side?

  • Comment number 15.

    What amuses me about Romney and his ilk (as represented by the young Libertarians in the audience) is how they make a precise connection between work and income. I was disappointed that no-one asked the simple question, "Do you believe that a person who makes $3,000,000 a year works 200 times harder than someone who makes (and in this case I might actually use the term 'earns') only $15,000 a year?"

    Ok - now I'm off to buy 50 space cars, in support of my God-given right to happiness. ..... On second thought, maybe I'll use the money to buy copies of Barbara Ehrenrieich's Nickel and Dimed for all those poor, oblivious preppies.

  • Comment number 16.

    Let's say we are morally justified in taking Michael Jordan's "excess" wealth to help those with less. Now let's follow that line of thinking down to the neighbourhood level. Should the poor residents be justified in demanding redistribution of wealth from the local owner of a shop or restaurant because they are better off? Should the street-sleepers then be justified in demanding a sharing of "wealth" from the residents of the street? It's a very slippery slope.

  • Comment number 17.

    The UK does not have an over enthusiastic welfare state system. It is simply being attacked by overly enthusiastic capitalists who feel its easier to attack poor, ill, disenfranchised individuals than bankers, politicians and financiers who lets face it have almost destroyed the entire ecconomies of some countries who will have to work for a decade or more to get back to where they were in 2008. Democracy Works, capitalism works but leaving everything to market forces have created the situation the World is facing now! that is a clear fact!. If you leave healthcare to PROFIT which relies on paying less than you take in revenue for each healthcare company then they simply will not offer healthcare to "risky" individuals or their families. We can all find example of people abusing any system, bankers, politicians and capitalists who promise lots and deliver little and yes even poor people trying to survive on little or no support BUT these are few and far between.... America is a WONDEFUL country but has many anomolies and injustices which it needs to address to hold itself out as a moral yardstick to the World..... Great series by the way, I have never studied philosphy and am a Scientist but I have seen much debate over the last few years on the morality of being poor!!. Remember education is the main way out of poverty for most families and the United States and now the UK have put huge financial obstickles in the way of a persons ability to gain advancement. Being wealthy DOES NOT mean you have any intelligence at all, just mostly been lucky, ruthless or manipulative...

  • Comment number 18.

    I would also echo another point made that access to healthcare is as important as access to a standard of education and the general maintenance of public facilities such as roads. T H Marshall defined citizenship as made up not only of rights, but also of responsibilities. Healthcare is not only a benefit or a right for the purposes of civility and moral justice (which are significant arguments enough), it is an intrinsic part of allowing individuals to contribute to society. How can those who are ill or lacking in basic medical care participate in or give to society?

  • Comment number 19.

    Can you consider free a man who's starving, who lives in poverty, who is unemployed, who's humiliated because he does not have the means to support his children and educate them? This man is not a free man, he may be free to scream and shout, he may be free to curse and swear, but HE IS NOT A FREE MAN!

  • Comment number 20.

    The BBC is widely acknowledged to be the greatest broadcasting corporation in the world.

    A similar corporation will never exist in the USA because of the view that purchasing a service must always be the decision of the individual. Television and radio in the USA is appallingly poor – most Americans know that – but there is nothing they can do.

  • Comment number 21.

    San Fairy Ann - Michael Sandel observes that the arguements have a common foundation - freedom. If you get into pub discussions in the USA we soon realise that there are some basic differences in how American people see life. Their Constitution and Bill of Rights is their in the back of their minds and before long parts of it are trotted out and fundemental to how they live life. Most Americans will talk about freedom as a cover for all sorts of radical (meaning back to basics) ideas that Europe has left behind some time ago. American society is quite unsophisicated or youthful in its understanding of the implications of the application of what they think is freedom. That's why you have gun laws that we mighht consider hugely dangerous or even nutty which are defended by them as an expression of freedom. Conversly, Americans drive their cars at what we would consirr, way too slowly, with most surburban houseing areas having 20 mph speed limits - or not being able to overtake a parked school bus when it is dropping off kids. Actually one of the problem of observing the USA is us in Britain understanding it isn't the UK 3000 miles West of us. It is a really different country, with different ways of life to us here - as different as say, Spain or Italy.

  • Comment number 22.

    What each of us has come to us by the Grace of God. The more abundant that is, the more responsibilty he/she has to God's family-immediate and the world family.We need to clarify needs vs wants.wants never end.Happiness does not come from the seven deadly sins but from a balance between self and us a people.

  • Comment number 23.

    These arguments are all based on the premise that we should be taxing an individual's income. WRONG! We should be taxing the real sources of everyone's income. These sources are Land, Energy and Knowledge. These 'comon goods' are provided in the same way as all natural resources like air, sunlight, rain and life itself.
    People, from Galilieo to Einstein and yes, Bill Gates, learned how to discover and use these resources, some for the common good, others for personal improvement. But once they have 'moved on' their work becomes part of our common heritage.
    It is users of this common heritage who should pay for that use according to how much they use. Landowners should pay for the amount of land they own, Energy users should pay for the amount of energy they use. Knowledge users will pay for that use by adding to the common knowledge base future generations will have available.
    So tax Land and Energy and abolish all unnatural taxes on labour in all its forms.

  • Comment number 24.

    Chris Downing raises the question of nationalisation. I am well aware of the errors and excesses of socialism in the 20th Century but there is nothing inherently wrong in supporting it as a philosophy and I for one would welcome a renationalisation of the utilities, the railways and a nationalisation of the banks in order that the majority are not exploited by a selfish minority. This does not mean supporting many of the extraneous features of socialism concerning matters such as religion (I am a Christian, as were many of the founders of the Labour party) or asking for coercion as existed in Soviet countries. The Americans do seem to regard collectivism as evil but it is really founded on a concern for others. Would Christ have denied help to a supplicant because the latter was too poor to pay?

  • Comment number 25.

    We pay Income Tax according to our means and this is used for the greater good. Those people who resent paying for Welfare would like to opt out of paying Income Tax??
    Any welfare contributions would presumably be on a scale in the USA as it is in the UK. The National Health Scheme has been in operation for about 60 years in the UK and it is accepted as normal.

    How can the 'haves' in the USA resent paying for the 'have nots'. Surely we are all responsible for our fellow man. The person who said he would not be able to afford his own food if forced to pay is grossly exaggerating. In the UK, if a person is that poor he would not be having to contribute anyway.

    To most British ears the arguments put forward against the Obama Welfare Bill seem incomprehensible.

  • Comment number 26.


    I agree. We are not completely self made - we develop what we start out with. A clever person has resposibilities to those less clever because a lot of that cleverness is not self- developed but God given. That would mean in this debate, Wayne Rooney has responsibilities to the development of other players, getting involved freely in youngsters training, giving their time and money to other less capable. Many rich and talented people do good works and know this is part of how they have responsibilities to others.

  • Comment number 27.

    A reply to Tom's post at 9.55.
    Is it easy for you to DICTATE where government involvement should stop. Just by coincidence you regard Police, Army and Justice the only 3 pillars that make a government justifiable. How convenient? Police to make sure your wealth (based on a man-made convention which is private poverty) is protected, the Army to make sure you can rage war and take control of resources (to make the rich even richer) and Justice to make sure your 'superior' right to property is well defended (and don't say it defends everyone, it is a well known fact that money makes all the difference in criminal and civil courts in America because it buys the best lawyers). What a joke! You are defending the state of affairs because it suits the rich. This is turning convenience (for the rich) into DOGMAS, and quite frankly the 99% are sick and tired of this cliche'. Why should a modern state not defend the right to a good education, good sanitation, good healthcare for all. If we recognise that all of these are important to us, as a society we can make these goals drive progress. Otherwise, why should the 99% accept this unfair deal. Covenants are made and can (and should) be broken when they are unfair for the majority and based on privileges for the few. Let's make a new covenant - and let the crony capitalists move to a special reserve if they wish, or better make them return all they have stolen through dodgy deals and special favours from the politicians they lobby and corrupt. Enough is enough!

  • Comment number 28.

    I once visited someone living in Thailand who had a beautiful home and garden, all mod cons, a live-in cook/cleaner...and a very HIGH WALL around all of it. Step outside his security gate and filth and poverty were pressing against his 'dyke' of a wall. I could feel them even as I sat by his pool. It was a golden cage and I hated it. We need the happiness of others to feel happiness ourselves, or at the very least, some kind of order!
    I lived in the U.S. for the first 20 years of my life and was very patriotic, but after 28 years in the UK I am so impressed by how enlightened Europeans are, and by socialism, that I would never go back. I just wish that my family could enjoy the life I do. My brother in the States once had to knock his own tooth out with a chisel, because he couldn't afford to visit a dentist. We wouldn't treat a DOG like that,here.

  • Comment number 29.

    Although the show may have had an interesting focus the trivialization of the American voice represented at the forum was striking. At not point in time our Philosopher interrogated anybody in the audience from a different point of view that of the privileged individual – by fate or fortune (wealth)- that happened to be sitting on the room. Can they all be sure that success is inevitable? In the discussion about the trade off between coercion and redistribution nobody for a minute put him or herself on the shoes of the ‘somebody else’ they were discussing who may benefit from enjoying public goods paid with contributions from those who have fortune or talent. There was nearly no reference to the word society, nor proper discussion of the notion of public goods, and so on. It was sad to listen how views, that although are very legitimate, were so heavily charged with ideology of various sorts went unchallenged. And the Public Philosopher did not stand up to the job of questioning the tenets of each participant ideology. It was all too much teleological. The sophists would not have been proud of that colleague. I wonder if this discussion would lead to the same reflection had it taken place in Dorchester (another section of Boston, where 50% of children live in poverty). Would it be a sequel with the views of Americans living in the SW of Philadelphia, in SE Los Angeles or in Camden New Jersey, or with folk from Central Florida or Boice Idaho? How representative of the public is the voice of the audience which by the way gathered in Cambridge not in Boston as wrongly advertised in the title? Is it Harvard square now the new shinning city upon a hill?

  • Comment number 30.

    Concerning redistribution;
    The debate ignored the question of Pragmatism.
    The French and Russian revolutions, inter alia, showed how the extremes of wealth and poverty (and power) bear the seeds of their own undoing.
    Mao said that History shows that in the long run, the educated get overthrown by the uneducated.
    All great religions recommend ‘feeding the poor.
    Equality is not the real goal. Eliminating inequitable extremes is.

  • Comment number 31.

    Does 'welfare' limit or enhance freedom? Another instructive debate, 'business unfinished'.

    We see the 'tools of society' (its language and vast infrastructure) being used by the 'products of society' (ourselves, more or less grateful), to address the extent and manner of individual 'obligation' to self and various others, our stances (perhaps unwittingly) directing us to one or other side of The Great Question, both moral and pragmatic, between equality and inequality, co-operative security as the context of competition 'to be our best', versus competitive 'chaos' as context for shifting alliances in 'market development'.

    Speed and sureness in negotiation and resolution of moral issues must vary not just with personal development, from play-pen, through school-yard, to legislative assembly, but also with the presence and stability of any guidance and constraint from our 'inherited' sources of 'moral authority, law and power'.

    Some are moved, despite ready acknowledgement that 'someone should help the needy', to wish 'all strength to the winner'. To 'win' though, is to create 'losers', who at the other extreme of 'luck' are driven to pray or to beg for charity.

    We all will know the power of gratitude, as a feeling, our response as beneficiaries or witnesses of 'creation and sacrifice', for 'the work' of parents, teachers, inventors, manufacturers, emergency services and leaders. Beyond individual instinct, there is 'teaching in life-experience', history, imagination and rationality, as to how best we might 'show' our gratitude' beyond sincere thanks.

    There can in fact be danger in 'gratitude', absurd or false obligation, the surrender of autonomy, the following of evil or foolish orders and imagined orders, to the cost of all, to the despair even of the intended 'recipient'. Life brings many opportunities, in love or duty or self-sacrifice, to render overwhelmingly valued service: some of those opportunities we will not miss, and so we learn that it is not to ourselves that we would wish any 'dedication'. There is no higher 'reward' than in - however 'evidenced' - shared re-dedication to 'God and Man', to faith in the worth of caring for each other.

    This is not to deny our debt to the pioneers of faith, art and science, and to those most prominent in our own lives and in 'recorded' history. Or to deny the risk of shuffling-off gratitude, taking others for granted, 'thanking God for His blessings' and just 'looking for more' for only ourselves and those closest. Such risk may extend to monstrous folly.

    What questions might help make 'the best' self-evident? Here is a suggestion:

    IF 'the great' were happy, having presented 'their' company accounts, to distinguish between their entrepreneurial and personal freedoms, their stake-holder-supported abilities to direct £millions or $billions as company heads, and their agreed social-contract abilities to 'take equal salaries', equal to the share of all others in society, to join in democratic 'direction of the market', who amongst 'the would-be-great' would get 'all fired-up' in protest?

    "It was not the money", we hear often; and also often we see the drive of wealth, hugely to give 'to good causes'. Views may vary on 'efficiency in government', at all levels - UN, federal, state, municipal, corporate, charitable - but in almost all there is expressed readiness to trust in some combination of institutions.

    However organised, the 'work of charity' - in the end - comes down to those 'at the front line', on what might be their 'terms of engagement', and what if any the basis of trust, from shared 'rational' belonging, from 'enforceable contract', just hope, or prayer?

    Perhaps the concern that one day brings all together will be the shared determination to maximise 'efficiency', to see no 'forced poverty' and no 'corruption' from good purpose by conflict of interest.

    With positive understanding of the benefits of secure democracy, of security for the universal exercise of conscience, all could 'settle' for Equality.

  • Comment number 32.

    I have worked and lived in the States. My area was healthcare and I was amazed to find that very sick patients could not be part of the hospice programme as this was not included in their insurance cover. What was more disturbing was that staff or patients did not see this as an issue, but for me as an outsider it was shocking. How could the contents of an insurance policy dictate what you were entitled to when you were clearly dying? It was so different to working in the national health service which has its problems but the basic values and principles of the NHS as really important and helps define who we are as a nation. My other area of work is early years. There is now strong evidence to show that the first two years of life are crucial in determining outcomes for children. Brain development in babies continues after birth and nurturing, nutritian, attachment etc are all needed to enable the brain of the young infant to grow. In my view all children should have a right to resources to enable them to grow up healthly. In the States 23.1% of children (UNICEF 2012) are living in poverty, the second highest rate for rich countries in the world, (Romania is highest). Child poverty levels in the UK are high at 12.1%. Why is such levels of inequality acceptable in the States? Why are people not out marching for equality for children? Do people see this inequality the same as the access to hospice care discussed earlier? In that this is the norm and that is how it is, there is no vision or no experience of how things might be. From my experience the States is insular and there is little opportunity for public debate on issues such as healthcare, child poverty and inequality in general. It is good to be able to respond to this debate! Frances

  • Comment number 33.

    First, a reductio ad absurdum: let us assume for the sake of argument that everybody is where they are at present in material terms because of their merit, or lack of it: question - should a child born into a poor family have the same rights to shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, recreation etc as a child born into a rich family? If not, why not? - no child has any control of being born, much less of where he or she might be born. If so, how can this be ensured without redistribution of some kind (or alternatively of the state - by which I mean society collectively - quite literally taking the upbringing of children away from the parents and making this provision)?
    Second: I, like one in two hundred of my fellow citizens worldwide, am an epileptic and require certain medication which the majority do not need (ie is not essential to their contiued physical existence): there are, of course, many like me in the sense of having needs greater than the average. How do we fit into this wonderful dream of complete individualism? Is it just tough?
    The whole of the discussion quite simply did not address the point of society as a whole, except for the point where Professor Sandel cross-questioned one of the students about the "social contract", I presume to try ensure that the student (and the rest of the audience) understood the significance of the concept. But this omission is nonsensical: I am typing this using a computer which I wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to manufacture, using power supplied by workers whom I will never meet, after having travelled by underground (originally dug about a century ago) etc etc. Nobody, no matter how much wealth might be at their disposal, can be self-sufficient (have these people never heard of John Donne? - or Jesus Christ for that matter: presumably they get out the garlic and a cross at the mention of Marx) and yet this was the way in which the debate was conducted - it seemed to me that even those who favoured some form of redistribution accepted that this complete individualism was philosophically and practically a possibility but was merely the wrong choice.
    It would be interesting to know how many of the students are going to engage in work producing the basic necessities of life - and the value that they put on such necessities as they do not produce (and also, how that they arrive at such value). I suppose that it is unnecessary for me to declare my own interest - I am an old-fashioned socialist and cannot for the life of me understand what is wrong with the precept "to each according to need, from each, according to ability"

  • Comment number 34.

    Mark @2, and Tom @5, miss I think the deeper 'point of the debate', to get beneath our arguments on socio-economic efficiency, and its lack. We are led to absurdities like "extremes of welfare" and "extremes of life-support" by the prior "extremes" of failure to organise "full employment", and failure to preclude "ulterior motive" in the rationing of care, 'provision' of assisted-dying, 'estimation' of LIBOR, advocacy of asymmetric austerity, etc.

    Necessarily, for 'popular public 'engagement' in current circumstances, Professor Sandel's debate was pitched at a superficial level. Narrow discussion of 'more or less social insurance' is lent special interest by the curious context of national crisis, of Mark's "luxurious" debt & squalor, building for 99%, and of the 1%-or-less escape into 'hoarding-orbit', but cooler examination is needed of the wider context, of moral confusion allowing un-examined corrupting disparity of socio-economic status, belonging, contribution and reward.

    By ''a racket", Tom, most will take you @5 to imply more than just 'a good line', rather 'a swindle', perhaps 'by ourselves of ourselves', certainly not 'for ourselves' (unless from chaos 'we' are thought to be collectively set on 'terminal enjoyment' of debt, poverty and the hatred of "our kids").

    If there is "a lifestyle" that we together are 'funding from debt', it cannot sensibly be thought of in terms of some average quality of life, somewhere between the Queen and the gutter. Rather, if you will see the relevant Big Picture, it is the lifestyle of 'shared inequality', of rule by fear & greed, of such conflict of interest as once would have been thought 'of the Devil' or at least 'of Treason'.

    Some relevant Public Philosophy is heard in The Sound of Music: "'Me', a name, I call myself". 'Freedom' (a word, I tell myself) means, we might gather by asking… for whom, from what, for what, by what and by whose means, exactly?

    For 'society', freedom is 'shareable'; otherwise anything, everything, and before long nothing.

  • Comment number 35.

    Its obvious we are not equal by any stretch but a sustainable society, like a living being, requires some redistribution of 'wealth', a helping hand to those less able, for society to retain a healthy disposition. The lack of knowledge of the history of sustainable democracy from the Putney speeches, French revolution, American Independence (from unjust taxes!), China etc and insight into practical human society in the debate was worrying.

    Without Government and Laws we have anarchy and exploitation. Governments primary domestic responsibility, defence aside, is to provide a legal system that can evolve through democratic action and basic health and education (transport, power, water etc common good services were also all originally state functions and perhaps should still be so). Taxes are collected to pay for these things and together they create stable, open, democratic economies. The gifted, clever and hardworking can then benefit from this open economic market to acquire a greater share of the wealth but the relationship is symbiotic; if you don't redistribute to provide opportunity to the whole of society then wealth concentrates, gains more power and influence and the poor lose the power to exercise their freedom and democracy unwinds.

    Take postwar UK with taxes at 90%; these reduced to a fairer c50% max and the unwritten "social contract" was that health and education were covered by the state but it was up to the individual to make of it what they could. In return people took whatever work they could and contributed to society as part of society; childbirth out of marriage or being unemployed brought shame on a family and were avoided. Success fuelled greed and faced with overseas competition the UK needed to change. But unions had become stagnant and intransigent and as a consequence were largely broken up by the conservatives .

    As a backlash the new Labour politics swung the pendulum the other way and the social contract has changed remarkably with "extreme" social groups created; the wealthy few raping savings, pensions and the tax system to become massively wealthy compared to the many and the mushrooming of the benefits underclass of single mothers, hardcore unemployed and many large recent immigrant families who sponge off the benefits system. This compares to the immigrants of the 60s/70s etc who bought into the old social contract and worked hard. It is this polarisation that threatens our democracies and is history in the making; without an appropriate system for redistribution people will become polarised and then chaos will ensue for a time whether we talk of Greece, Europe the US or China.

    If were rich I would not want my taxes to pay for the lazy and irresponsible but I would be happy for it to be spent on more disciplined education even compulsory national service in the forces, fire brigade, police or state hospitals - this empowers the individual to both earn and apply his democratic freedom.

    In the past our politicians were firstly men of experience, often had faith based value systems, and could be characterised as strong, practical but fair. Today many more are professional politicians and believers in theory and ideals who take polarised positions instead of looking for sensible collaborative but hard fought positions in the best interests of the nation. Who is brave enough to take away the benefits established over the last 10 to 20 years? In the US this requires cross party compromise over the fiscal cliff and in the UK the reset of the social contract The rich in the UK and the US should pay more tax than others but none of us should pay tax to cover unsustainable benefits.

  • Comment number 36.

    I was shocked regarding references to charities and churches put forward by those not in favour of redistribution. This doesn't create an equal platform as charities and possibly churches too will have more resources in wealthier areas. True liberty can only take place where the basics for living are in place - water, food, shelter, healthcare and fair access to education. Once those building blocks are there, I would be happy to look at tax cuts.

  • Comment number 37.

    nicholas88 @35: more to democracy than nostalgia

    Perhaps you have "88" years, born in 1934? Or perhaps just 25, born in "'88"?

    Whatever, for all to agree a prescription for 'sustainable democracy', we will - with education and inspired effort - all need to arrive at a common understanding of the meaning of 'democracy'.

    No one will ever be 'born democratic': but most will have the potential to arrive at understanding and wholehearted agreement, given 'good' education.

    Though medicine and education might one day afford some 'answer' to estimated 1-3% of psycho-sociopathic, at present we bear the burden from their gravitation towards power and influence, many vulnerable children and adults 'educated' or influenced to trust in a 'rat-race' characterisation of 'human nature', a self-fulfilling 'prophecy'.

    It is of course obvious that "we are not equal by any stretch" with respect to many many dimensions. We can though treat each other as equal, in terms of respect and belonging, affording each other security to act in conscience, confidence to speak-up and to compete to be our best.

    Just by natural searching, for understanding that is shareable, agreement can be eventually reached amongst enough of us, that we 'cannot afford' to play games that deprive others of democratic votes, and that secure equality is needed NOT just in elections, but ALSO in 'the market' that directs and judges the work of our lives.

    That "we must educate our masters", was well said. We are otherwise left to chose between order and chaos, uncertain which is which. Unjust order can soon prove illusory, and naive overthrew can invite new tyranny.

    The best-motivated of betrayed Cromwellians, betrayed followers of Tom Paine, betrayed Babouvists, no doubt of brave activists down the centuries to the Arab Spring, were I suspect fully aware: to remain 'a little bit' still under the rule of Fear & Greed, is no more possible than to stay 'a little bit' pregnant.

    We are here facing, in stiff adulthood, 'a syllabus' that should be for children to take in their stride, today only to be calumniated in degree-study, dismissed in A-level, beyond imagining in GCE.

    Good luck!

  • Comment number 38.

    I was listening to this programme in the background but bit by bit my jaw slowly hit the floor listening to the sheer selfishness of the audience. This has truly opened my eyes to the true nature of the American dream.

  • Comment number 39.

    3 little words: Diminishing Marginal Utility. This means that the more money I have, the less each extra pound or dollar is worth to me: think about the value of one dollar to a starving person and its value to a welathy person. Its fairly obvious. Thus by transferring some of those dollars from the rich to the poor we increase the total amount of utility in society. The goal of utilitarianism - the maximisation of total utility (or happiness, if you will), in a society is a principle of practical morality (or politics if you prefer) that most Europeans take for granted as an obviously desirable, morally good principle. Of course the rich should pay more into the pot, because their dollar (/pound/ Euro) is worth less to them, and the pain it costs them in handing it over is far outweighed by the benefit it produces for the poorest. This isnt communism or the abolition of private property, just a little tinkering at the margins to provide a minimum safety net.
    And even if you dont agree on moral grounds, take a purely selfish consequentialist view - what about the cost to you, your family, friends, neighbours, community and the people you care about if there are large numbers of hungry, sick, homeless and socially disenfranchised people out there...that has a big impact on the quality of your life.
    Funny, too, how people are willing to pay taxes for their military, police, jails, roads, border patrols, street lighting but balk at pooling their resources to achieve an efficient healthcare system!

  • Comment number 40.

    Not meaning to be unkind, but listening again I was struck by the almost abusive involvement of students, foils for The Public Philosopher.

    Even the more socially-aware do service, some as innocents, brave but vulnerable self-taught rebels; while amongst libertarian naives there is risked exposure of moral bankruptcy, not just of themselves, perhaps too of their families, friends, teachers and system.

    The same spectrum of emerging psychological profiles is still I'm sure seen in UK classes, even in those dedicated to 'social studies' that the public might assume to be 'for the public good'.

    In a 'school of government', the task of teachers seems necessarily 'other' than 'for democracy', rather of high-grade special-needs child-minding, perhaps a moral testing programme for some, a corruption finishing-school for others, and for many as across the 'Hollywood' economy, salary, sport and pension made chief rewards.

    It is ironic that the back-story social experience by which the screen persona of 'spaghetti Clint Eastwood' is made understandable, and even admirable, is that of inequality, insecurity, corruption, and, amongst chief box-office villains, first-strike violence.

    It clearly would suit the purposes of the villainous, to portray society as weak, cowardly, venal, brutal: fair-game as extras for the heroic killer, only by his help to be afforded some expression of humanity, enough to be of timely use or to supply a heroine to understand him.

    Are we to infer 'villainy', at the heart of US culture, it's Manchurian mainspring?

    Might UK's Leveson join Frank Sinatra and Denzel Washington, to the rescue?

  • Comment number 41.

    Your blog is interesting as to what people outside the USA feels/sees.
    Recently spoke with a young woman who home schools her 9 and 10 year olds and she was telling them about the America Presidential election. She explained Obama was a socialist who believes in taking the money a family makes or taxes to help for instance she said, the little boy next door. The boys thought that was fantastic that Obama would take their money and help the little boy next door. She told them they had no say in how their money would be spent that it would be up to government to decide how to help the little boy next door.

    However, she continued on to explain the conservative point of view which is perhaps it would be better for her boys to work and make money and spend their own money and help the boy because they knew what he needed and the government didn't need to decide for them. The boys decided they wanted to be conservationists and make their own decisions. The American Bill of Rights and their Constitution strictly adhere to free speech, gun ownership, and responsibilities of each and every state. The Federal Governments responsibility is national security and military. More little boys like this will maintain America's freedom.

  • Comment number 42.

    The Ron Paul principle that was referred to - taxation to pay for the services that preserve personal *property*, but not for those that preserve personal *health* - was asserted, but never justified. Why aren't the libertarians arguing that paying taxes (to help strangers hold on to their property) is theft? Surely (on the libertarian philosophy) I should have to pay to protect my own property, and you should have to pay to protect yours. On what grounds do they justify making *me* pay to preserve *their* rights? The distinction they make is convenient for them, sure; but they say nothing to support it.

    And there's a deeper conundrum here. They all talked about property and money and earning as though these were unproblematic, as though they were natural kinds. But surely they are all just social conventions? The currency, the law of contract, intellectual property rights - all are maintained and policed by the state, and are as much 'built' as anything Obama mentioned.

    In the end, though, the arguments brought to bear on both sides in this programme were equally self-serving, with no appeal to anything beyond "but I don't *like* the implications of your principles, I want a different conclusion!" Professor Sandel made some gesture towards getting people to criticise their own assumptions but (in a half-hour slot) he had a hill to climb. Well done to him; still, I'd like to hear a longer version where he actually makes the contributors think!

  • Comment number 43.

    One of our friends has a doctorate of theology, doctorate of psychology, and physiology. He believes that every child (other than those born with apparent mental and severe physical handicaps) were created equal.

    The difference from all of us is our upbringing, our surrounding, our parents, our grand-parents, quality of early teachers, etc.

    Many children in the USA now live in a one parent family and a very large percentage of these children have an uneducated parent who couldn't help them learn if they tried.

    Many households with two parents are overworked or both working to make ends meet. Time is a problem for working on homework or assisting with special projects.

    Rare is the parent/grand parents who assist the children with home work and or life lessons.

    The last election in the USA proves these statements!

    It is also a proven fact if you pay people with money such as disability or support payments they will vote for you!

  • Comment number 44.

    whoitis @41

    Thanks for the sermon!

    Gospel according to Ayn Rand?

    Your 'young woman' certainly gets around.

    Is 'home schooling' at all monitored in the US?

    Did you report the abuse?

  • Comment number 45.

    Dear Hayllar: In the USA companies before Obamacare could self insure (meaning they put aside enough each year to pay claims based on the benefits offered versus the cost shared by the employee). Once ObCare was announced which was shoved down the throats of the American citizens who will have to pay for everyone (even illegals) in the US even visitors (but the Congress People don't have to be on it) those companies have said they will drop their plans. This healthcare plan will in this writer's opinion be the blow increasing the deficit beyond control.

    Most working Americans looked for jobs with benefits including health care. It was only the last several years that employers decided they wouldn't supply insurance; thank you Obama!

    Besides self insurance, most insurance companies made their rates more purchasable based on the rates vs benefits or true freedom to purchase what a person considered best for themselves. Companies had to remain cost effective in order to stay in business. Many people don't want to give up a car or a luxury item to buy insurance where as we always felt it was the first thing we purchased. Strictly a mind set and focus of what is more important. We were free and always felt we could make our own decisions or determination, now we can't under OC. Is it right we should pay for an illegal when they were a thief coming into our country. Their country wouldn't pay for us!

    Most people give to their Christian organization as well as help in their community, or clubs (Masonic, Eastern Star, Shriners, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H, FFA) by being leaders or contributing. Their gifts even leave the US and work to promote Christianity as well as better housing and living for different cultures. Free enterprise is the basis of the constitution which also allows for freedom to use your resources as one chooses.

  • Comment number 46.

    ALL for All - I apologize if I insulted you. Wasn't meant to be a sermon or gospel. The Young woman is a stay at home Mom with a working Husband raising her two young boys because the schools have large 40+ classrooms and she is able to educate them better. Yes they pass state administered tests and there was no abuse, what in the world made you believe there was?

  • Comment number 47.

    whoitis @44

    Seriously to uphold American Freedom, not of the master-race or its master-manipulators but of the 'created equal' individual, promotion of the general welfare would need to be established, by the People, all enjoying the Blessings of LIberty, rather than trapped in squalid Fear & Greed.

    Hard-pressed though many are, that enough turn out to 'vote their hope' does nothing to prove or disprove your statements. Generalised disparagement of voters, and of human potential, tells more of the author than of his or her subjects.

    The case for Equal Democracy is as powerfully reinforced by stories of vote-purchase with benefits as with tax-reliefs. May you begin to understand why.

  • Comment number 48.

    All for All, I do understand the Democracy, but perhaps you don't understand the American way. As a youth (not telling my age thank you) my father made under $5.00 a hour. But he was able to educate 5 of us, clothe and feed us as well. What did I want...something better than my father and mother had not stating I was ashamed or embarrassed by them because I was never embarrassed or ashamed of them. We knew we were blessed and never looked down upon anyone, my parents helped wherever they could regardless of faith or ethic status. My parents were married well over 65 years and I over 40 and yes to the same person. This is also unheard of nowadays, too easy not to believe in oaths, or to work through problems. We have instilled the same in our children. This is not to say we don't have disagreements! It's human nature.

    As far as not being able to get medical services, our countries hospitals are mostly non profit hospitals. They already treat people who have no insurance and most of the states "had" a plan called Medicade to assist those with larger needs. Now we hold auctions, dinners, etc to raise money for special needs such as cancer of little ones to assist parents with their costs. I'm not saying there are not many many selfish people either who could work but work just seems to be beneath them, or people who never give to any organization that helps those in need.

    The real issue I was referring to is the human issue of those who must learn by the lessons of hard knocks rather than a structured education, or are behind because of their parents ignorance. Do you suggest these children should be taken and raised someplace like an orphanage? I always thought that was the nice things about humans, they are all different!

  • Comment number 49.

    Hallar - where is the fear? Sorry missed that! There is no fear unless it is losing our freedoms. Regardless, we are a relentless lot.

  • Comment number 50.

    whoitis @45

    "The deficit" is distressing, as a 'headache' for comfortable policy-makers, a political 'risk-factor' for our masters, one more excuse for real abuse of the ordinary citizen made unemployed or further short-paid, and a virtual stick with which humanity and democracy may be 'beaten'.

    It will be in serious address of US democratic deficit, that due control of "the deficit" and prudent reduction of national debt will be efficiently negotiated.

    For the economy to be enabled to transform itself with maximum intelligence of capital and labour movement, enlightened free agreement will be needed on universal liberation of conscience, the putting aside of conflict of interest.

    To suppose otherwise is frankly to risk treason, in falsehood to 'God & Man'. We are indeed 'as children', no society yet to approach 'maturity', and sympathy is due for dashed hopes in the US as in the UK with respect to post-war dreams of social justice.

    Individuals and families will always be unique, but such has been and still is the range of forced disparity of circumstance, it is self-deception to generalise and moralise on 'the unwise choices' of others. Sad the day, and the days I fear many, when Americans in healthcare 'have to' turn away any sick.

    Having given so much to so many at such personal cost in two World Wars and many other 'scrapes'… Having discovered ourselves to have been led 'not always' ethically… Must we continue to sell the culture of serious 'winners', and 'serious' losers? Our 'charity' then to rescue?

    PS @46 "no abuse"? Your young woman's 'story' rings a bell, the gullibility of 'her boys' as implausible now as it was at first hearing!

  • Comment number 51.

    whoitis @48

    Good news here, no shame in wanting "something better".

    Hard indeed, the road ahead, even with maximum afforded 'social belonging'.

    Born 'ignorant', we all will know 'hard knocks' from folly and ill-luck; and some will know many more than others, perhaps never to settle. Better context will be of help - great help.

    Your neighbourhood has kept you 'righteously busy', and it is with no intent to disparage that I suggest of your life as I wish of mine, would that our energies could have been given to fullest benefit, in our own ways as "all different", but in full concert sure of each other's free conscience.

    I must say goodnight - wrong time-zone!

    PS. Truly sorry if your young woman told the truth.


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