Professor Michael Sandel delivered the 2014 Adam Smith Lecture in front of a captivated audience in Kirkcaldy.
It is time to reconnect with a classical vision of economics which pays heed to society’s moral and spiritual needs.
That was the crux of Professor Michael Sandel’s message as he addressed an enrapt audience at the Adam Smith Theatre on Tuesday night.
In a lecture based on his recent book ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’ Sandel impressed upon his listeners that it was a fundamental mistake to think of markets as being inert and essentially benign.
Rather, “value-free” market solutions had the ability to corrode and corrupt the moral fabric of society.
“We won’t be able to invigorate our democracies unless and only when we find a new way of thinking about economics, “ he said.
“Adam Smith understood that economics was a subfield of moral and political philosophy. Modern economists don’t bother with these questions.”
Market-based practices had created a society of inequality where affluence not only afforded fancy goods, but vital access to health, education and political influence.
“What’s at stake? It matters for politics; for the way we live our lives because in the last four decades this way of thinking has increasingly come to dominate public life,” he commented.
“Today, there are very few things that money cannot buy.”
In the USA, for example, prisoners could pay for a prison cell upgrade; schools struggling academically were paying students to achieve better grades.
However, using cash incentives often backfired. For example, despite paying $50 per pint of donated blood, the USA’s supply is actually less regular than the UK’s.
Sandel claimed people are fed-up with the moral and spiritual emptiness of political discourse today and called on politicians to debate the bigger questions .
“While Smith worried about sympathy, benevolence and altruism...some modern economists claim the virtue of markets is they spare us from using up scarce supply of civic virtues,” he said, “but altruism and generosity are not commodities, they are more like muscles which grow stronger with exercise.
“To renew our public life we should practice them more regularly...just as Adam Smith knew we must.”
Sandel’s lecture delivered a “coup” for Kirkcaldy
The Adam Smith Lecture series, originally launched by Fife College 40 years ago, has brought many leading international figures to Fife.
Professor Sandel, described as “the most famous teacher of philosophy in the world” joins an impressive list of former speakers including Alan Greenspan, Kofi Annan and Mervyn King.
He said: “Having the opportunity to visit Adam Smith’s birthplace and be the guest speaker at this prestigious event in his hometown is a great opportunity and I was delighted to share my views and philosophies with such a warm and welcoming audience.”
Gordon Brown MP, who has known Prof. Sandel for many years, invited him to deliver the historic lecture and introduced him on stage.
He said: “I’m certain Adam Smith would have felt very proud, just as we are, to have someone of Professor Sandel’s global appeal and notoriety visit our hometown to speak at a lecture in his name.”
This year’s event was organised by Kirkcaldy’s Ambitions, a partnership which includes Fife College, Adam Smith Global Foundation, Fife Council, Fife Cultural Trust, Kirkcaldy4All and the Fife Free Press.
Michael Levack, chairman of the Adam Smith Global Foundation, told the packed-out audience that attracting someone of Prof. Sandel’s standing was a “coup” for Kirkcaldy and part of the group’s wider plan to “preserve Kirkcaldy’s social and historic built environment, enhance Adam Smith’s legacy worldwide and benefit the people of Kirkcaldy.”
Hugh Logan, Fife College principal, added: “This event has given many of our students, studying hospitality, events and design, some real experience assisting in the run up to the day and at the lecture itself.”