What are the ethical limits of market behavior? If you can rightfully own something, when is it improper to sell it? If you may rightfully perform a task, may you also perform it for money? What does commerce add or subtract from the ethical status of an object or an action?

These are ancient questions, though undoubtedly the modern world has put them into stark relief. Commodification has become more and more widespread, and new items and services are being bought and sold all the time: The sale of kidneys, surrogacy, and even just standing in line have all had their critics. Our team of lead essayists this month, Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, argue that there do not exist any general limits to the scope of market behavior: If you may rightfully perform an action or own an item, you may rightfully buy or sell it. Not everyone agrees, of course. Joining us as well are the prominent social commentators Robert Kuttner and Benjamin R. Barber. Both argue that yes, there are meaningful limits to market behavior, and that societies ignore these limits at their peril.

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.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Book Forum: The Kidney Sellers: A Journey of Discovery in Iran, March 16, 2014

Latest Issues