Markets with Just a Few Limits

Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski’s Markets without Limits is a powerful defense of the proposition that anything we should be allowed to do for free, we should also be allowed to do for pay. The transfer of money does not magically render an otherwise defensible activity immoral.

I agree with Brennan and Jaworski’s central thesis, and with most of their specific arguments as well. In this response essay, I focus on some extensions of their core argument, in which I explain how several standard arguments for banning various markets are not only arbitrary, but also based on internally contradictory assumptions.

I also explore an area where I disagree with a part of the authors’ analysis: their defense of vote-buying in elections. While they are right to suggest that there are logically conceivable circumstances where vote-buying should be permitted, such situations seem highly unlikely to occur in the real world. On balance, a categorical ban on vote-buying is likely superior to any realistically feasible alternative. But the somewhat unusual reasons for this limitation on Brennan and Jaworski’s argument underscore its basic soundness in other cases.


The Contradictions Lurking Behind Standard Arguments for Banning Markets

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 even opposed the introduction of parking meters because putting a price on the right to park was considered “un-American.”

But Brennan and Jaworski could have taken their critique of such arguments further. In many cases, they are not only arbitrary but internally inconsistent with other views commonly held by the opponents themselves.

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 much greater risks in order to increase their income.

If you believe that organ markets must be banned because they exploit the poor, you must also argue that the poor should be forbidden to take jobs as lumberjacks and football players. If you believe that such considerations justify banning participation in organ markets even by the non-poor, than we must also categorically forbid monetary compensation for football players. Indeed, the case for banning the payment of football players is actually much stronger than that for banning organ markets. Unlike the ban on organ markets, a ban on professional football  would not  lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Other critics believe that organ markets must 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, the only participant in the process forbidden to profit from the “commodification” of organs is the one who provided the organ in the first place. If you believe that people should be forbidden to sell kidneys because earning a profit from organs is immoral “commodification” of the body, you must either oppose paying all the other people who currently earn money from organ transplants, or explain why they, unlike the original owner of the kidney, are not also engaged in commodification. In reality, a person who actually earns a large part of her livelihood from organ transplants – like a doctor who specializes in such operations – is engaged in commodification of bodies to a far greater extent than the typical paid donor who earns a profit from a kidney once, but otherwise  earns their living in other ways.

The same goes for people who argue that kidney markets should be banned because earning money from transactions involving body parts will somehow corrupt our morals. If the morals of doctors, nurses, and others are not corrupted as a result of repeatedly earning a large part of their livelihood from organ transplants, it is not clear why the morality of donors will be corrupted by earning money from selling a body part on just one or a few occasions.  And, if the moral judgment of those immediately involved in organ transplants is not impaired, it is even less likely that the morals of third-party bystanders will suffer.


Should We Legalize Vote-Buying?

While I agree with most of their arguments and conclusions, I remain skeptical about Brennan and Jaworski’s defense of vote-buying.[1] 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.

This argument is not without merit. As I have outlined in greater detail elsewhere,[2] voter ignorance is widespread and most voters have little incentive to either acquire more than minimal political knowledge or evaluate what they know in an unbiased way. I am sympathetic to proposals to incentivize voters to increase their knowledge of political issues, though I worry that the government cannot be trusted to design and implement them effectively.

A world where organizations such as the League of Women Voters pay citizens to make better voting decisions might potentially improve the political process. But such an outcome seems highly improbable. Historically, the overwhelming majority of actual cases of vote buying are situations where the payment was used to incentivize voters to support whichever candidate would promote the payer’s narrow self-interest, or to unthinkingly vote the “party line.”  In theory, we could ban only the “bad” vote buying, while legalizing the few cases of beneficial bribery.

But it is likely impossible in practice to separate out the rare cases of defensible vote-buying from the much more common deleterious ones. Moreover, any government that even tried to do so would have to come up with an official definition of what qualifies as a good reason to vote, and what is a bad one. It is highly unlikely that any real-world government could be trusted to do so in an unbiased way.

Although Brennan and Jaworski do not address the issue, presumably their defense of vote-buying would also apply to bribing jurors. To be consistent, they would have to argue that it should be permissible to bribe jurors to vote for the “right” outcome, or to deliberate more carefully. As with vote-buying, real-world bribery of juries tends not to be so high-minded, and real-world governments are unlikely to be able to separate out rare cases of  good bribery of jurors from the far more common bad kind.

The voting and jury examples might point to a more general weakness in Brennan and Jaworski’s position. Perhaps many other markets should be banned for similar reasons. But it is likely that these are unusual special cases. What differentiates voting and jury service from most other activities is that voters and jurors are making decisions where they have a moral duty to promote the interests of third-party strangers with whom they have no personal relationship or other strong incentive to take their interests into account. Moreover, those strangers usually have little ability to mitigate harm by refusing to participate in the relationship and seeking out better partners. The politicians elected by the voters will rule over the entire society, even those who object to their assumption of power. Few if any other forbidden markets share both of these characteristics simultaneously.

Despite this reservation, Markets without Limits is a great contribution to the debate over commodification. Both critics and supporters of commodification arguments have much to learn from it.



[1] Their defense is based in large part on the more complete development of the same argument in Brennan’s earlier book The Ethics of Voting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[2] See Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), chs. 1-3.

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.