The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Georgetown political theorists Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski recently published an excellent new book, Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. The book is a powerful critique of claims that "commodification" of various activities is a great evil that must be banned. The authors summarize their thesis here:
Most people now agree we should have a market-based economy. But, they say, certain things ought to be kept off the market. We may buy and sell pencils, food, football, and education, but it is wrong to buy and sell sex, kidneys, pregnancy surrogacy, standing-in-line services, or bets on terrorist attacks.
We disagree. The central thesis of our book, Markets without Limits, is that anything you may permissibly do for free, you may permissibly do for money. There are things you may not sell, such as child pornography, human slaves, or nuclear weapons, but only because you may not have these things in the first place. In special cases, we can't sell certain things to certain people-e.g., I should not sell you a baseball bat when you're in a murderous rage, even though baseball bats are the kind of thing that may be bought and sold. Otherwise, everything is fair game.
Critics of commodification-of the process of putting things that were not previously for sale on the market-have produced an impressive array of objections to buying and selling various goods and services. These include:
1. Exploitation: Buying and selling certain goods-such as sex-might take pernicious advantage of others' misfortune.
2. Misallocation: Buying and selling certain goods-such as "free" tickets to "Shakespeare in the Park"-might cause the goods to be distributed unfairly.
3. Corruption: Buying and selling certain goods-such as violent video games or pornography-might cause us to have bad attitudes, beliefs, or character.
4. Harm: Buying and selling certain goods-such as naming rights for children-might harm people.
5. Semiotic: Buying and selling certain goods-such as kidneys-might express wrongful attitudes, or violate the meaning of the good in question, or might be incompatible with the intrinsic dignity of some activity, thing, or person.
In Markets without Limits, we systematically debunk multiple instances of each these kinds of objections (as well as others). We try to show that there are no principled objections to markets….
The interesting questions about markets are not what we may buy and sell, but instead how we should buy and sell it. Certain ways of buying and selling things might be wrong, but that does not mean the thing in question must never be bought or sold.
As Brennan and Jaworski emphasize, their book is not an argument for a completely free market, or for libertarianism more generally. Their thesis is still compatible with numerous restrictions on various market transactions. For example, if you believe that it is unacceptable "exploitation" to allow buyers to purchase kidneys from the poor, you might favor a regime where only people above a certain level of income are allowed to sell their kidneys. But their book does powerfully defend the thesis that there are no goods or services whose sale should be categorically forbidden, except for those that it is morally wrong to provide regardless of whether money changes hands or not. For example, murder for hire should be banned because it is wrong to commit murder even for free.
Although the authors' thesis is necessarily limited, it does nonetheless address extremely important issues. There are a great many markets that are currently banned because mainstream public opinion believes it is immoral to sell various goods and services, even though it is often perfectly fine to provide them for free. Organ markets, prostitution, and prediction markets with respect to events such as terrorist attacks are among the most important examples.
These prohibitions impose terrible costs. Legalizing organ markets would save many thousands of lives in the United States alone. As the authors note, legalizing terrorism prediction markets might well help us predict terrorist attacks, and thus reduce their incidence. Legalizing prostitution would greatly reduce the many harms by the current black market for sex. And so on. Legalizing each of these markets would do a great deal of good, even if legalization were coupled with various regulatory restrictions.
The great strength of Brennan and Jaworski's book is their careful and thorough refutation of the various objections to their position. They are particularly effective in rebutting the oft-made claim that we must ban certain markets because permitting them would send the wrong "message" or because intuition and tradition cause us to feel repugnance at the thought of selling those particular goods or services. Among other things, Brennan and Jaworski emphasize the arbitrariness and cultural contingency of such traditions. For example, as they point out, many nineteenth and early twentieth Americans opposed the introduction of life and health insurance for children, because they feared it would amount to treating children as if they were mere financial assets. For centuries, it was widely believed that it is wrong to pay teachers for education, because doing so debased the value of knowledge and wisdom. In the 1920s and 1930s, many people opposed the introduction of parking meters because putting a price on the right to park was considered "un-American."
Brennan and Jaworski could have taken their critique of such arguments further. In many cases, objections to "commodification" are not only arbitrary, but internally contradictory with respect to other views held by the opponents. For example, many people oppose legalizing organ markets because they believe it would lead to exploitation of the poor. But most of them have no objection to letting poor people perform much more dangerous work, such as becoming lumberjacks or NFL players. If it is wrong to allow poor people to assume the risk of selling a kidney for money, surely it is even more wrong to allow them to take even greater risks in order to increase their income.
Others believe that organ markets should be banned because it is inherently wrong to "commodify" the human body. Yet most of them have no objection to letting a wide range of people profit from organ transplants, including doctors, insurance companies, hospital administrators, medical equipment suppliers, and so on. All of these people get paid (often handsomely) for helping transfer organs from one body to another. Perversely, almost the only person forbidden to profit from the "commodification" of organs is the one who provided the organ in the first place.
I do have a few reservations about Brennan and Jaworski's argument. For example, they argue that there should not be a categorical ban on vote buying, because it is not wrong to pay a person to vote as he or she should: based on careful deliberation and consideration of the public interest. While their argument is sound in theory, it may well be impossible in practice to separate out the (relatively rare) cases of defensible vote-buying from the much more common ones where people are paid for their vote for the purpose of advancing the goals of some narrow interest group or voting the straight party line.
Overall, however, this book is a great contribution to the literature on its subject. Both critics and supporters of "commodification" arguments have much to learn from it.
NOTE: The Cato Unbound website is conducting a symposium on Brennan and Jaworski's book this month, including critiques by Benjamin Barber and Robert Kuttner, and responses by Brennan and Jaworski themselves.