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Reith Lectures 2009: A New Citizenship - New politics of the common good

Updated Monday, 8th June 2009

In the fourth and final 2009 Reith lecture, Michael Sandel asks, “What would a moral and civic renewal of contemporary democratic politics look like?” He calls for a reinvigoration of public discourse with an approach to politics where we think of ourselves less as consumers and more as citizens, in New Politics of the Common Good

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President Barack Obama won the presidency on a promise of change. His campaign tapped a yearning for moral and civic renewal. What would a moral and civic renewal of contemporary democratic politics actually look like? How would a new politics of the common good recast our understanding of government, the terms of political discourse, and what it means to be a citizen? Lecture 4 tries to answer these questions.

Giving shape and content to a new politics of the common good requires first of all a reinvigoration of public discourse. It means addressing, rather than avoiding, large moral and even spiritual questions, as Lectures 1-3 suggest. It also means rethinking the role of government.

In recent decades, it has been widely assumed that the purpose of government is to correct for “market failures.” This view of government emerged as a response to the market fundamentalism of the Reagan-Thatcher era. It accepted the premise that markets are efficient mechanisms for promoting consumer welfare, but argued that government should intervene when the price system didn’t fully capture the goods at stake.

Take environmental policy, for example: if the air and water are 'free', then there will be too much pollution. So government has to step in, figure out what value to place on clean air and clean water, and devise a policy to correct for the 'market failure'.

But conceiving the role of government as being only or primarily to correct for 'market failure' is unduly narrow. It makes the purpose of governance parasitic on the purpose of markets – to maximize consumer welfare. It leads, in other words, to what Sandel calls 'market-mimicking governance' – MMG, for short. It asks, "What outcomes would markets produce if all goods and resources were properly priced?"

But the purpose of government is not only to maximise consumer welfare. It is also to promote distributive justice, to strengthen the health and vitality of democratic institutions, and to cultivate in citizens the attitudes, dispositions, and civic virtues on which democracy depends.

A new citizenship requires a politics that leans against the privatising tendencies of our age. We have come to think of public life as an extension of markets, as economics by other means.

But a healthy democracy requires that we think of ourselves less as consumers and more as citizens.

First broadcast: Tuesday 23 Jun 2009 on BBC Radio 4





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