Only three hours before the most anticipated presidential debate in recent history, Bostonians gathered in Faneuil Hall to discuss the state of democracy in the United States. For the second year in a row Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel hosted a philosophical discussion as part of HUBWeek, a week of events and promotions meant to highlight and bring together the educational, scientific, artistic, and technological communities in Boston.
Sandel, bestselling author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, encouraged audience members to participate in the discussion in a modern version of the Socratic dialogue, a public discussion of civic life and morality. He invited everyone sitting in the historic hall to engage in a discussion about what a democracy is for, with the hopes that this discussion can help us begin to figure out how to repair the tattered state of democracy in our country.
The discussion began with an exploration of one of the most fundamental democratic concepts, voting. Sandel presented the audience with a proposal: What if a voter could engage in vote-swapping? If a Massachusetts voter wanted to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton and a New Hampshire voter wanted to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and they came to an agreement to vote for each other in their respective states, would that be acceptable?
The questions brought up the issue of markets and their role in democracy. Both parties would be better off, as the value of a Democratic vote is higher in a swing state like New Hampshire than it is in a Democrat-dominated state like Massachusetts. Sandel called on the audience to raise colored cards, red for approval of vote-swapping and green for disapproval.
After a near-even result, audience members were called on to stand and defend their decision. Those who disapproved argued that it was a slippery slope, that it could lead to inequality, while those who approved argued that the economic principle of free markets often leads to better results than government actions. Sandel moderated the arguments and used follow-up questions to challenge audience members’ assumptions.
The discussion of voting continued, as Sandel presented the idea of buying and selling votes and eventually moved toward the ban on “ballot selfies” in many states. While discussing whether voters should be allowed to take pictures of their ballots to post on social media, Sandel introduced an unexpected guest who had been sitting in the back of the room—Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09.
Walsh joined Sandel on the stage, where he joked that he supported the right to take a ballot selfie, “especially if they’re voting for me.” Walsh brought up the idea of voting as a civic obligation when he said, “if we have to incentivize people to go vote, I’m not sure that their vote is actually worth it in the first place.” Sandel pushed this point forward, bringing up the example of Australia, which has instituted fines for citizens who don’t vote. In response, Walsh said that the vote should not be mandatory, but continued to uphold voting as a civic obligation.
Moving away from the topic of voting, Sandel provoked laughter as he questioned Walsh about parking in Boston. Many residents shovel out spaces during the winter and save them using traffic cones or lawn chairs.
Citing John Locke’s theory that once we mix our labor with unowned space, we then have a right to that space, Sandel asked if this spot-saving was right or wrong. The audience poll revealed that many viewed it as wrong, to which Walsh commented, “the majority of people in this room didn’t grow up in a three-decker neighborhood.”
As the discussion continued, audience members brought up the idea of civic burdens, benefits, and responsibility, as it related to public space. Walsh joked that this is the biggest decision he has to make every winter, and his current policy is that space-saving is acceptable for 48 hours after a storm.
Sandel and Walsh then discussed parking tickets. Some citizens choose to pay parking fines because they believe they are cheaper than paying for an expensive garage. This brought up the idea of a fine versus a fee. Sandel referenced the shame he felt as a child returning a late book to a library, versus the nonchalance he felt returning a late movie to a video store.
In the second case, he was actually being a better customer because the video store’s purpose was to make money, while the library held a different position as a public facility.
In the discussion of fines versus fees, Sandel brought up Finland’s incremental ticketing system based on income that eventually led to a rich man in Finland being given a six-figure speeding ticket. Before leaving the stage, Walsh said, to a chorus of laughs, that he absolutely supported that idea.
After Walsh’s departure, the discussion moved toward immigration and the idea of buying citizenship. Sandel called on audience members to defend their positions on a priced immigration system. Pitting two audience members against each other, he prodded further the discussion to the point of whether a citizen has the right to sell his own citizenship to someone else, a suggestion that was met with trepidation from audience members. After listening to audience responses, he used this final point to bring the talk to a close and present some conclusions on democracy and the market.
“We have slid into a certain impoverished understanding of what democracy is for,” Sandel said. “We’ve come to think of democracy as economics by other means. We’ve come to treat citizenship as a kind of extension of market relations.” Sandel argued that we feel unease over some of these examples, such as buying votes and selling citizenship, because we still retain a connection with the ancient democratic ideals that held these things above the marketplace.
Ending the talk, Sandel spoke about Aristotle.
“The point of democracy, he thought, the point of political community, was to create a setting in which citizens would deliberate with one another as equals about the good life and in deliberating would learn something, would grow, would become better: better citizens, better human beings, than they would otherwise be,” Sandel said.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor