If You May Do It for Free, You May Do It for Money

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 central aim of the book is to put philosophers out of the business of talking about the moral limits of 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. Perhaps buying sex from a desperate woman exploits her, but that does not imply buying sex is always wrong — you could buy it from someone who is not desperate. Perhaps buying a kidney from an uninformed, reckless seller is wrong, but you could instead buy one from an informed, rational seller. And so on.

Critics: Make Sure Your Complaint Is Actually about the Market

We say that there are no in-principle moral limits on markets. So, for example, consider “slaves for sale,” or “murder for hire.” Neither of us endorse a market in such things. But, of course, neither of those things are wrong because of some fact or feature about markets. The wrong of slavery is captured by the removal of the autonomy of a human being who is entitled to that autonomy. It would be wrong to make a gift of slaves, as sometimes happened in the past. The wrong of killing a stranger is that it’s an instance of wrongful killing. It would be wrong to kill a stranger for free, or as a gift to your friend. In these cases, it is not the “for sale” part, nor the “for hire” part that makes slavery and murder wrong. It is the slavery and the murder itself.

These are examples of things that money should not buy. But they have nothing to do with markets as such.

It’s the How, Not the What

The other objections are about the how, not the what. Here’s what we mean. There are not just different markets in different kinds of things, there are different kinds of markets in the very same thing. Cars can be bought at auction; they can be bought off the lot. We can use money to engage in a market exchange, or we can barter. We can change how much or how little the price of a good or service is, and we can change the terms of participation through licensure, for example. Many times, critics of commodification are not complaining about what is being sold, but about the contingent ways the thing is being sold. The solution is not to forbid the market, but to change it.

For instance, Elizabeth Anderson objects to the surrogacy market. She thinks surrogacy brokers have bad business ethics, and objects to how certain surrogacy contracts might leave surrogates heartbroken. But, at best, these are objections to the particular way surrogacy is being sold. Get rid of brokers and change the contract, and her objections disappear.

Her seemingly more principled complaint is that surrogate markets exploit surrogates, because they take advantage of potential surrogates’ feelings of generosity and altruism. Surrogates empathize with would-be parents and demand less money than they otherwise might. But even if she’s right, at best that shows us that exploitative markets in surrogacy are bad. It leaves open that such markets are fine whenever they don’t involve exploitation. We could ease Anderson’s mind by hiring greedier, less empathetic surrogates. Note also that Anderson’s argument proves too much—presumably Anderson and many other professors care about their students’ well-being, which means they demand less salary than they otherwise might. Yet no one, not even Anderson, concludes this means it is wrong to buy labor from professors.

Do Markets Corrupt?

Many people, such as Michael Sandel, claim that markets “crowd out” moral behavior, and make us worse people. But they rely upon shaky or ambiguous evidence, and ignore strong evidence to the contrary.

Herbert Gintis, Joseph Henrich, Daniel Houser, and many others have done extensive research on what cultural factors induce people to be fair, trusting, trustworthy, generous, and honest. In general, they find that people from market-based societies are more fair, trusting, trustworthy, generous, or honest than people from socialist or traditional societies. As Gintis summarizes the research, “The notion that the market economy makes people greedy, selfish, and amoral is simply fallacious.”

Critics of commodification sometimes point to particular cases they think prove their point. But these cases are ambiguous at best. For instance, in the 1970s, some daycare centers in Haifa, Israel, were having problems with parents picking up their children late. Economists suggested that the daycare centers charge a late fee. The daycare centers initially charged a very low late fee, and, to everyone’s surprise, the number of late pickups went up. Michael Sandel interprets this as proof that markets crowd out altruistic motives—parents stopped feeling bad and just viewed late pickups as a transaction. However, an alternative reading, equally supported by the evidence, is that prices mean something. Parents thought that picking up their kids late was seriously inconveniencing the daycare centers. However, low prices communicate to parents that late pickups are not and never were a major transgression. Perhaps parents thought, “I’d assumed a late pickup really put them out, but apparently, it’s not even six dollars’ worth of inconvenience. I guess I was wrong.”

Symbolic Objections to Markets

Sandel, Anderson, and others complain that buying and selling certain goods and services violates the meaning of the goods in question, or violates the meaning of our relationships, or expresses wrongful attitudes.

For instance, some anti-commodification theorists say that even if we fixed up kidney markets, and got rid of any exploitation, harm, or misallocation of kidneys, such markets would still be incompatible with the intrinsic dignity of the human body. Such markets would express the idea that the human body has a price, not a dignity, that it is just a piece of meat. But implicit in such arguments is a highly contingent view of what money means. As sociologists have documented at length, contemporary westerners happen to see money as profane, impersonal, and utilitarian. But westerners did not always think that way, and many people around the world do not. The Merina people of Madagascar do not attach such stigma to money. On the contrary, they believe a husband ought to pay his wife after sex; failure to do so is disrespectful. Pace Sandel, they do not see gifts of money as thoughtless or impersonal, and, according to sociologist Viviana Zelizer, neither did Americans in the late 1800s. Contemporary Americans happen to think putting a price on something communicates that the thing is merely a commodity with no intrinsic value, but they do not have to think that way.

Indeed, they should stop thinking that way. Right now, about 100,000 people are on the waitlist for a kidney transplant. Most people on the waitlist will not get a kidney. A market in kidneys could easily solve the problem—people are not willing to give kidneys away, but they are willing to sell kidneys, and others are willing to buy them. Yet the main barrier to legalizing such markets is the widespread view that kidney markets are repulsive, disgusting, and degrading. However, Americans do not have to think that way; it’s just a contingent fact about American culture that we have constructed a code of meaning in which kidney sales count as disrespectful. Since these markets would save lives, Americans could instead view kidney markets as expressing respect for life rather than disrespect for the body. They could view such markets as no less degrading than markets in professors’ lectures. Still, Americans are willing to let people die in order to hold true to their code of meaning. But this isn’t a reason to forbid kidney markets. Rather, it’s a reason to change American culture.

Proving us wrong

Let us offer what we think are the necessary criteria for proving our thesis false. Step one requires hunting for an asymmetry. Can you find an example of a good or service that is permissible to have, use, or exchange for free, but not for money? If so, then move to step two: Is your objection to the market design-insensitive? That is, is there no way of designing a market in that good or service that overcomes your objection? If so, then you have proven us wrong. Otherwise your objection is not an objection to markets in a thing, but an objection to a market with these or those specific features.

This is the challenge that needs to be met by anti-commodification theorists to have a successful anti-commodification argument. As we show in Markets without Limits, so far, they have not met it.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski take on the critics of commodification. They first offer a typology of arguments against buying and selling otherwise licit items and actions. These critical arguments include claims of exploitation, misallocation, corruption, harm, and - likely the most controversial case - a class of objections that they term semiotic. Semiotic objections to market behavior claim that buying and selling can in some circumstances express wrongful attitudes. Brennan and Jaworski review examples of these arguments and show why in their view they are mistaken. They then offer a means by which they might be proven wrong; but so far, they say, no one has done it.

Response Essays

  • Benjamin Barber argues that free markets are a fiction. Democratic controls are everywhere, and these controls must also make markets just. That’s because markets can’t exist in a vacuum; they are constituted by laws, and these laws need to be instituted democratically. Many of the good things that we hope to achieve in market exchange cannot be had in any other way; this is particularly true of fairness. Individuals are poorly situated to make judgments about fairness or non-exploitation themselves, because their lives are suffused with power relations that predetermine what they will say and do. The democratic process has the potential to liberate them from these power relations.

  • Ilya Somin broadly agrees with Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski that commodification is not a bad thing in itself. Yet he proposes to draw one very small area of exception: Citizens must not sell their votes, whether in elections or as members of a jury. The dangers of political corruption are simply too high, in that potential vote buyers are unlikely to pay people for good motives. Rather, they will act out of narrow self-interest and subvert representative government. This must not be allowed. In other cases, however, markets should be allowed to operate in one form or another.