Readings of Smith by Contemporary Political Philosophers: Michael J. Sandel

Alejandra Salinas for AdamSmithWorks

August 17, 2022
Political philosophy professor Michael J. Sandel is well acquainted with classical liberal authors, but he does not analyze Adam Smith’s thought in any of his major works.1 Admittedly, he quotes from Smith in a lecture in 1998 and in a 2020 book, although on both occasions he criticizes Smith’s stance.
So, taking into consideration this initial indifference, and later criticism, it was a surprise to come across the “Adam Smith Lecture 2014,” where Sandel praises Smith for integrating the economic, moral, and political in his writings. In this way, he joins others who have recognized the unique contribution of the Scottish author to the study of social life.
We cannot but celebrate this finding, which inspired us to look at Sandel’s treatment of Smith’s ideas regarding three issues that will be the focus of our analysis: self-interest and impartiality, markets in education, and the purpose of human work.

From self-interest to impartiality 
In his 2014 lecture, Sandel states that the central theme in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) is working out the ethics of sympathy and benevolence. One of the “puzzles” he finds in the book is how “human sympathies seem to be bound to our immediate concerns.” To illustrate the point, he reads from Smith’s passage about an imagined earthquake in China that causes millions of deaths and about the expected reaction of a foreign person when hearing the dreadful news.2
According to Smith, such a person would first express sorrow and melancholy, and - Sandel adds- “if he were in the financial services industry” he would ponder the effects of the earthquake on commerce and on “the stock market” without further preoccupations (caveat: Smith does not talk about the “financial sector” or the “stock market”, this is Sandel’s addition).
Sandel then points out that the Chinese tragedy would be of less interest to that person than losing his “little finger,” and that Smith asks why this is the case. However, the audience is not told how Smith addresses this issue because Sandel stops the reading to pose his own question: “How should we reimagine our moral circumstances, our relation to humanity, our moral and political obligations, in a way that corrects for this tendency to our narrowness, to our parochialism, to our self-interest?”
It is unfortunate that Sandel trims Smith’s passage on the earthquake. Readers of TMS know that his analysis continues by describing self-interest as a “passive feeling” to be corrected by the “active principles” of reason, which shows us “the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others.”3 In other words, Smith intends to show that human beings are not bound exclusively to their immediate concerns but are motivated by a mix of self-love and of impartial judgments based on a “sense of propriety and justice.”4
As scholars have acknowledged once and again, the balance between self-interest and impartiality is a key element that lies at the heart of Smith’s theory about the motivations and dynamics of social interactions. Yet Sandel uses the example of the earthquake only to concentrate on the attention to self-interest. In ignoring the reference to reason or impartiality Sandel retains only what serves his own argumentation against self-interest, constructed as a predominant individualist and materialist focus, unencumbered by “the authority of conscience” (to use Smith’s words).

Markets in education
In a previous lecture entitled “What money can’t buy” Sandel brings up the topic of professors’ salaries to illustrate his argument on the current “marketization of life.” As a point of departure, he takes Smith’s views on The Wealth of Nations5 about which he writes: “[For Smith] teachers should be paid according to the number of students their classes attracted. For colleges and universities to pay teachers a fixed salary, Smith wrote, is a recipe for laziness, especially where colleges and universities are self-governing.”6
Sandel then compares that stance to the opposite view that students’ monetary payments fail “to regard teaching with the proper respect,” and he goes on to ask: “Are there some things that money can’t buy? My answer: sadly, fewer and fewer. Today, markets and market-like practices are extending their reach in almost every sphere of life.”7 He rejects the idea of students’ payment of teachers’ income, mostly on the grounds that, if money dominates social life, there will be an unequal access to marketable goods and services, which leads to the growth of social inequality. The problem with inequality, he argues, is that it “undermines freedom by corrupting the character of both rich and poor and destroying the commonality necessary to self-government,”8 and to correct this he proposes to strengthen civic education in public schools “where children of all classes can mix and learn the habits of democratic citizenship.”9
In sum, Sandel builds a chain of causalities between introducing monetary incentives in education, a growing social inequality and the lack of civic commonality. The odd thing about his reasoning is that he does not address Smith’s argument about how the quality of education is improved by markets, which is the main point in the passage he quotes. Let’s reconstruct that argument: for Smith, allowing students to pay for the salaries of teachers would introduce incentives for the latter to improve their performance. Thus there would be not only a mutual benefit for students and teachers but also for society at large. Better educated people have more tools to get better jobs and higher incomes, thus reducing basic social inequalities.
Smith poses an important question that must be answered by anyone who is concerned about social inequalities and education as a means to diminish them:
Have [publick schools] directed the course of education towards objects more useful, both to the individual and to the publick, than those to which it would naturally have gone of its own accord? 10
The question invites us to analyze the performance of educational institutions by looking at facts. Following Smith’s insights into the benefits of the “invisible hand” in society, Professor James Tooley has collected data from very poor populations dispersed in several countries in Asia and Africa to show that a paid and competitive private education raises the educational standards for the poor when compared to public schools.
The corollary is that people evidently resort to the mercantilization of life because they prefer to obtain a higher quality of the goods and services they need. It is not clear from Sandel’s arguments why we should prefer strong civic ties to better equipped and probably happier individual lives.

On work, consumption and production
In his 2020 book, The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel addresses the purpose of human work, which he sees as allowing people to contribute to the common good by providing goods and services, and in doing so, to gain social recognition and dignity. From this angle, work “draws citizens together in a scheme of contribution and mutual recognition.” Accordingly, in his opinion “the most important role we play in the economy is not as consumers but as producers. For it is as producers that we develop and exercise our abilities to provide goods and services that fulfill the needs of our fellow citizens and win social esteem.”11
Sandel’s argument about the priority of production is explicitly directed against Smith, whom he quotes when writing that “consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production” and that “the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”12
At least two comments are in order about Sandel’s interpretation on this issue. First, in regard to consumption, Smith is arguing against mercantilism, an economic system in which, he writes, “the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.”13 Therefore, his analysis is unrelated to the nature or purposes of human work and exclusively limited to the field of economic policy. In this sense, Smith intends to show that governments should not grant privileges and benefits to producers when this harms consumers. He recommends instead that governments embrace policies amicable to the “system of natural liberty.”
Once again, Sandel seems to be manipulating Smith’s arguments for the sake of constructing his own: in the case of the imaginary earthquake he trims the reference to impartiality, and in this case, he displaces the discussion about economic policy to one on the nature of work.
Secondly, Sandel understands work in two opposite and exclusionary ways: a) as directed to make a common contribution and gain recognition (which is the view he defends), or b) as applied in the satisfaction of consumers’ demands (which he ascribes to Smith’s view). However, this opposition is a false dichotomy, a fallacy that dissolves when we realize that satisfying consumers is precisely the condition that makes it possible for producers to make a genuine common contribution and thus to obtain social recognition. Would we applaud or appreciate the efforts of someone who does not satisfy our economic needs, or, worse, works to the detriment of that satisfaction?

Michael Sandel is a publicly-acclaimed figure. The first episode of his series of lectures entitled Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?” registers more than 34 million watchers. As announced in each episode of the series, financing was provided by several donors and funds some of which, like The Pritzker Family Foundation and The Markle Foundation, come originally from business people who excelled in satisfying the needs of consumers, thus simultaneously attaining both social recognition and large profits. In turn, the latter allowed them to become philanthropists who - in the case of the series- have helped to extend the activities of higher education across the globe. These examples illustrate Smith’s theory on the balance between self-interest and benevolence, and, more generally, demonstrate the way markets contribute not only to an increase in overall prosperity but also, and more to Sandel’s liking, to a more altruistic society.
It is to the merit of Sandel that he has attracted so many viewers and donors to the field of political philosophy. It would undoubtedly add to his academic merit should he he adopt a Smithian view to explain that great achievement!

Want more?
Lauren Hall, Self Interest Rightly Understood, at AdamSmithWorks
Catherine Pakaluk, Adam Smith, Inclination, and Need: A Re-Interpretation of Self-Interest, at AdamSmithWorks
Alejandra Salinas, Readings of Smith by Contemporary Political Philosophers: John Rawls, at AdamSmithWorks

  1. In Democracy's Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1996) Sandel mentions that Justice Stephen Field quotes Adam Smith on the right of free labor (p.194); in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1998) the classical liberal authors mentioned in the index are Hume, Kant, Locke and Mill, and in Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (Harvard University Press, 2005) the index lists Kant, Mill, and Tocqueville. Also, among the classical liberal texts compiled in Justice: A Reader (Oxford University Press, 2007) Sandel includes only Bentham, Mill, Locke, and Kant.
  2. Sandel, “Adam Smith Lecture 2014,” at minutes 9:26-12:22. The reference is to TMS III.3.4, 137.
  3. TMS III.3.4, 134.
  4. Ibid.
  5. He addresses the section entitled “Of the Expence of the Institutions for the Education of Youth” (WN II, V.i.f) at 759.
  6. Sandel 1998, 89-90.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. 119.
  9. Ibid. 122.
  10. WN II, V.i.f. p. 759.
  11. M.J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit. What´s Become of the Common Good, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, epub, pp. 191-193.
  12. WN IV.viii.49, p. 660.
  13. Ibid.