Debating the Morality of Markets in the Indian Context

L to R: James Crabtree, Michael Sandel and Jerry Rao in Mumbai on January 24, 2014. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, January 24, 2014 — In recent history, the supremacy of market economics has asserted itself across the globe. The neo-liberal economic agendas popularised in the 1980s by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sparked an era of "capitalist triumphalism." The power of the market has reached wider and deeper into societies and tied together the world's economies through rapid globalisation. In response to the expansion in scope and power of markets, we must consider the trade-offs they present and evaluate consequences for society. What risks emerge in societies where nearly everything is for sale, and how and when should societies decide market interventions? This discussion holds extra weight in the Indian context, as political debate rages over the role economic liberalisation must play in securing the nation's future.

To shed light on market capitalism, its effects and its compatibility with morals, Asia Society India Centre staged a programme featuring Michael Sandel around the Indian release of his book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel is a world-famous academic known for his immensely popular Harvard course, "Justice," which is freely available online. Jerry Rao, an eminent Indian businessman and a pioneer in providing affordable housing in India as a profitable enterprise, joined Sandel in conversation. James Crabtree, head of the Mumbai Bureau for the Financial Times, moderated the conversation to draw the most out of Sandel and Rao's amicable debate. The programme began with Padma Bhushan Homi Bhabha’s personal and humorous introduction of Sandel and insightful opening remarks on the topic that set the stage in front of a capacity audience at the CSMVS Museum.

The programme did not disappoint the large and enthusiastic crowd. Sandel began with an extended explanation of the central principle of his book: that without acknowledgement or debate, we are evolving "from market economies to market societies” with some harrowing associated societal implications. He questioned some fundamental assumptions of modern economic thought and posed poignant examples of markets clashing with morals in numerous sectors of society as adapted to the Indian setting. When Rao joined Sandel for discussion, the programme's fireworks sparked. Crabtree introduced Rao as "one of India's libertarians" and Rao immediately announced that he did "not at all" agree with Sandel's interventionist tendencies. While acknowledging the consensus surrounding the positive outcomes of India's post-1991 market liberalisation, Sandel and Rao found many areas of disagreement. Their debate spanned a range of concerns from their own theoretical economic stratification to the contested realities of the results of an evolving market society in India. The result was a gripping discussion between intellectual heavyweights.

Reported by Thomas Pierce, Intern, Asia Society India Centre

Video 1: Michael Sandel's address (54 min., 16 sec.)

Video 2: Michael Sandel with Jerry Rao and James Crabtree (54 min., 16 sec.)