A Hub civics lesson, from vote selling to snow shoveling

Harvard professor Michael Sandel spoke with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Monday during a HUBweek forum in Faneuil Hall.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Harvard professor Michael Sandel spoke with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Monday during a HUBweek forum in Faneuil Hall.

In what might be considered a high-minded undercard to democracy’s main event Monday night, hundreds of people packed into Faneuil Hall before the presidential debate to hash out some of the weightier issues of democratic life.

Led by Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher and professor at Harvard University, the Faneuil Forum discussion promised to be an antidote to the freewheeling bombast that has marked this singular election season. It would be a discussion that would tackle democracy with a capital D and, he said, as he noted, “Democracy is not in terrific shape.

What followed was a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the ethical implications of vote trading, the buying and selling of votes, voter-booth selfies, parking ticket scofflaws, immigration, and even that annual argument that in Boston sometimes results in blows: the wintertime space saver.


Kicking things off, Sandel posed a question fitting in an election year that, according to projections, has the potential to be very closely contested.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Should citizens be allowed to swap their votes? In other words, if voters in one state wished to trade their vote to someone in a swing state in which a vote might theoretically go farther, should they be allowed to do so?

And if that’s OK, Sandel asked, then why not go all the way – allowing votes to be bought and sold?

Though the vast majority of audience members drew the line at the buying and selling of votes, one member of the audience insisted that in such an open marketplace, fewer votes would go to waste, and therefore, democracy would be enhanced.

“Everyone would vote,” said the audience member.


“And that would be better than the current situation, where often half the people don’t vote at all?” replied Sandel.

The discussion was one of several marquee events planned for HUBweek, Boston’s weeklong festival of arts, science, and technology that runs through Saturday at venues across the region. Now in its second year, the festival aims to burnish the city’s reputation as an international hub for education, technology, and health care by offering events, seminars, and parties that explore innovative ideas and businesses taking shape in and around Greater Boston.

Founded by The Boston Globe, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Massachusetts General Hospital, the festival features 120 events, ranging from conversations with leading researchers and health care experts, to the GlobeDocs film festival, and a variety of parties. Other notable participants include author and public health researcher Atul Gawande; Harvard Business Review editor in chief Adi Ignatius; and Andrew McAfee, codirector of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy.

The Monday evening forum differed markedly from last year’s event, during which Sandel led a celebrity panel to discuss the implications of technology on daily life. That event included cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Huffington Post cofounder Arianna Huffington, and others. Monday’s event, by contrast, allowed members of the public to “play Plato to [Sandel’s] Socrates.”

“We’ve come to think of democracy as economics by other means,” said Sandel, who is known for lecturing to stadiums, and for his Harvard class “Justice,” which tackles intricate issues of public life. “We’ve come to equate citizenship as an extension of market relations.”


In one of the more memorable stretches of the evening, Mayor Martin J. Walsh took the stage and was playfully grilled by Sandel on the morality of everything from voting ballot selfies (“I view it as fine, especially if they’re. . . for me”) to the buying and selling of votes (“If we have to incentivize people to go out and vote, I’m not sure their vote is worth much in the first place”).

In a discussion on parking tickets, Walsh broached the idea of increasing fines — or at least giving out more of them, writing multiple tickets to those who spend an entire day parked illegally.

“That’d fix a lot of problems we have in Boston,” he added, joking, “We could hire people to shovel the cars out, we’d be all set.”

Moving from a discussion of a Swiss village that opted to pay a state fine rather than accept immigrants, Sandel pivoted to the idea of basing immigration on free-market economics. First introduced by Nobel laureate economist Gary Becker, the idea would “simply put a price on the right to immigrate, and let the market determine who will come.”

When the idea was put to a vote, all but a score or two of the audience rejected the idea.

“We could establish a sovereign fund like Norway,” said one audience member who supported the idea, describing it as an economic boon. “They built theirs on oil, we’d build ours on immigration.”

But a woman from London objected to the idea, worrying that it would increase inequality, having particularly negative consequences for refugees.

“Suppose refugees were put in a different category,” asked Sandel. “Would you have the same objection?”

“There could be nonprofits who could create scholarships for promising immigrants,” responded the supporter.

But the real fireworks came closer to home when Sandel broached the perennial problem of snowstorm space savers, which seemed to divide the audience.

“Now there’s a real moral dilemma,” said Sandel.

Dugan Arnett can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett. Malcolm Gay can be reached Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.