Can the financial system be fixed? The Philosopher vs the Trader

24th May 2012

The Combatants

Michael Sandel is a controversial figure who is attracting media attention here and in the US with his arguments about the moral limits of markets.

Its not just the media and the great and the good who are paying attention to Sandel – his undergraduate course, ‘Justice', has enrolled over 15,000 students and is the first Harvard University course to be made available online and on public television.

His argument that "we have evolved from a free market economy to a free market society where everything is for sale, even when it shouldn't be" makes a compelling case in favour of limiting market involvement in civic virtue.

Last night, Michael Sandel (, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard, spoke at St. Paul's Cathedral via The London School of Economics to discuss his new book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.

Mindful Money's Lauren Maffeo covered Sandel's talk in order to address what role, if any, philosophy should play in the investment sphere and to see how it contrasts with the radical proposals of complementary currency advocate and proponent of radical economic innovation, Bernard Lietaer.

What we were interested in finding out is: Does the seemingly abstract realm of philosophy have anything relevant to say to the markets?


In the blue corner: Michael Sandel: The Philosopher

In his discussion of how the financial sector has come to reign over social interaction, Sandel outlined three key points that relate to the investment sphere:

When goods are defined by cultural attitudes, norms and orientations, market involvement in, say, Sandel says cash incentives to donate blood or stay healthy (two scenarios posed, the latter is which is an NHS reality) turn senses of civic responsibility into commodities to be bought and sold. "It's not enough to ask about economic efficiency," Sandel argued. "…the marketisation of our society has to do with corrosion of commonality."

Sandel argued that as the wealth gap in the U.S. continues to increase, the commodification of the private has an unbalanced effect on the lower class.

Those who can afford to purchase the commodification of incentives to eat well, pick up their children on time and, in the case of nonviolent prison offenders, pay for a cell upgrade, automatically puts them at greater financial advantage over those who cannot.

Couple this inequality with the continuous lack of social interaction between social classes, and Sandel says there is cause for concern.

"Democracy does not demand perfect equality," he argued, "[but] it does demand that we encounter one another. This is how we negotiate differences and care for the common good."

Relating the U.S. wealth disparity to the financial sector, Sandel stated that whilst public debate is essential in order to uphold the collective civic relations he desires, the financial sector is not off the hook.

Investing, Sandel said, "Became detached from the social purpose that justified finance in the first place-to allocate wealth to those who need it."

Ultimately, Sandel proposed not a concrete solution to the issue of market intrusion as much as promotion of discussion.

Indeed, his status as philosopher allows him not to offer financial remedies as much as to ignite the debates that could bring about the change for which he advocates.

His goal, he said, is to enhance moral public debate about where markets do and don't belong-and since everyone is a player in the free market society, it is not enough for the Occupy movement to make a villain out of Wall Street.

We all must discuss where money should assist with human life as well as when it should stay away.


In the red corner: Bernard Lietaer: The Trader & Innovator

On the surface, Bernard Lietaer's practical approach to economic reform seems worlds away from Sandel's rhetoric .

A key player in the money systems sphere for more than 40 years, The Future of Money author Lietaer has advocated for complementary currency as a practical solution for the financial crisis, discussing currency relativism and shortcomings for years; indeed many of his ideas correspond with Sandel's

Lietaer supports resurgence of complementary currencies that operate on a smaller scale "to solve social, environmental and education problems."

In a 2003 interview he argued that the "privileged position of the dollar" would keep the powers that be from currency reform-and acknowledging the needs of the people.

"When people say, "Well, there are fiscal crises in other countries because the governments are less stable," my question is, "How long would any government last in a country if you had to repeatedly cut back on education programs, social programs, building roads and all other programs?" Lietaer asked. "How could that make a stable democratic government possible?"

Lietaer firmly believes that the worlds of finance and human relations are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, he has cited "fureai kippu" (caring relationship tickets) supported by 300 or 400 private currency systems in Japan that are not covered by national health insurance as an example of how commercial currencies function for social purposes.

As the population ages around the world, Lietaer says putting them all in elderly homes will quickly result in bankruptcy.

Commercial loyalty currencies such as the fureai kippu work to solve financial issues with the people they serve in mind.

Lietaer cites shortage of money around the world as the source of financial disparity. In an interview with Odewire, he argued that everything for every world citizen revolves around money, stating that the kind of money being used lies at the root of inability to pay for life's necessities, such as health and education.

" But money wasn't created by God," Lietaer said. "We have forgotten that it's a system designed by people. And I believe that this design, which dates from centuries ago, is at the root of most problems in our society.

And the good news is that with a small change to the money system we can make an important contribution to the solution of a number of those problems."

Both Sandel and Lietaer have shown that the heart of financial discussion can be, and most often is, philosophical.

Finance, investing, even currency are all man-made creations-and if their purpose has evolved, then discussion of this change is long overdue.

In the spirit of Sandel, Mindful Money raises the debate: Are philosophical principles relevant to investors? Or are the two spheres mutually exclusive? What do you think?


on Mindful Money

Upside down economics – morality before greed

Risk and reward don't go hand in hand

3 Ways we can stop the UK Pension meltdown

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