Mere Wordplay Isn’t a Debate

Jason Brennan writes,

After reading Benjamin Barber’s careful, fair, charitable, and rigorous essay, I realized Barber is right. Market fundamentalism and libertarianism are cuckoo. We ought to replace our apparent “monolithic monism” with, I suppose, polylithic pluralism. And I’d better start taking seriously the dialectical essence of politics. To that end, I’ve asked Oxford University Press to retract my book Libertarianism, and for Princeton University Press to retractThe Ethics of Voting and the forthcoming Against Politics (a book that Barber would truly hate).

I can find nothing to disagree with in this, the lead paragraph of Brennan’s reply, and - assuming the rest of his response is an elaboration - I have not bothered to read the rest.


(Oh, sorry, you mean he is being facetious? How clever is that? I guess I am being facetious too, huh?)

One serious note: Brennan and Jaworski are engaged in word play. I am interested in politics, for which there is no place in this version of the market debate. Although I will admit that there are a number of “candidates” in the Republican field who talk about markets and liberty with an equal obliviousness to the conditions of politics, they too are immune to debate. Like Brennan and Jaworski, they want to tell their interrogators which questions they can be asked, and ignore the rest. So I will rest my “argument” with this: “vote for Hillary.”

See what I mean?

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.