About this Issue
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.
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.
Free Markets Aren’t
The argument advanced by Brennan and Jaworski (B&J) belongs to an abstract genre associated with market fundamentalism. It affects to be quite specifically about how acting freely and entering into a market exchange around money are the same thing, but in fact it is about markets without limits. That argument relies on the usual liberal/libertarian background assumptions about “free” markets (immune to power, money and equality); about the “private” nature of good (individual goods and interests trump public goods – if there is such a thing! – and the commonwealth); about a reckoning of the costs of actions and commodities that ignores social costs (so-called externalities); and about money as an exchange medium that not only doesn’t demean “higher goods” such as dignity, but ennobles them. These unstated background assumptions are typically the provenance of laissez faire liberals, extreme libertarians and market fundamentalists such as Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick. They also reflect the attitudes that anti-government Tea Party insurgents like Ted Cruz embrace in pandering to Americans who are frightened by politics, government, and democracy.
These arguments are deeply anti-political – contrary to the real challenge we face as citizens and politicians of creating common ground on which people holding conflicting interests, values, and perspectives can stand; stand and coexist civilly, without entering that Hobbesian state of nature where” the war of all against” makes life “nasty, brutish, and short.” Real politics, however, plays out in a dialectical space between the monolithic and apolitical extremes of totalitarianism (where there is no market, no civil society, only a totalizing state) and anarchism (where there is no state, no community, no public good, only the market – B&J’s seeming stance). Democracy is about degree, however: how much equality is compatible with how much liberty? How much justice is compatible with how much private interest? “None” is not an answer.
Like all such abstract closed systems, JB&J’s monolithic monism it is utterly without a feel for the dialectical essence of politics – balance, compromise, and the capacity to hold rival values, such as liberty and equality, in tension, without insisting that one or the other is right or wrong. This dialectic is of course the indispensable condition of democratic politics.
Believing, however, that “there are no principled objections to markets” at all, B&J are seeking not a viable political balance between market and state (even if it skews to market), but seeking to delegitimize the public sector and the democratic state altogether. Not even among the most clownish cuckoo birds chirping away at one another in the recent Republican debates is there anyone who suggests “if you may do it for free, you may do it for money” let alone that there are “no limits on markets.” Certainly not the moralizing Ben Carson or Ted Cruz; not the narcissist Donald Trump (much as he loves money). Even the Ayn Rand apostle Paul Ryan has just stepped into one of the most political posts in America, where the mandate to abolish government must contend with the mandate to make it work.
Let me take on two intimately related fundamental issues that emanate from the monolithic market perspective: first, the irreducible meaning of “public” and how a refusal to acknowledge it blinds B&J to res publica (public goods) and to the difference between common and private interests, as well as to the social costs of so-called “private” market choices, so-called “externalities;”and second, the dependence of liberty, autonomy, and choice as they are exercised on equality, community, and power.
Many seeming private goods deliverable through market exchanges have a public dimension that requires public regulation to ensure their delivery. People buying tickets to movies or concerts in order to SHARE the experience with others, and concert artists like Patti Smith and filmmakers like Josh Fox selling tickets with the aim of providing reasonably priced tickets to a diverse audience who share their egalitarianism will both be foiled if scalpers buy up tickets and resell them at prices only a few can afford; even worse if a single buyer (say a wealthy Patti Smith hater), buys the entire house in order to keep it empty. In such cases, anti-scalping regulations or a rule limiting the number of tickets that can be sold to one buyer manifest a public good – fairness – that the simple market exchange cannot itself provide.
Behind irrational outcomes of individual buying and selling or reselling stands the problem of monopoly. When contracts freely entered into among buyers and sellers create a monopoly in which the possibility of future contracts is compromised, the market has failed, and the need for a public guarantor for private goods is justified. The guarantee is itself a good the market cannot produce. The public sector (government) assures that the private sector works. Gilded Age markets produced more monopoly than competition, more privilege than choice. Teddy Roosevelt’s anti-trust legislation liberated markets and allowed them to deliver. The Roosevelts famously used aggressive state power to save capitalism from itself.
Markets also are incapable of addressing externalities. Few choices individuals make are truly individual and private; (let alone free – see below); most have social consequences. When a natural gas company fracks, it presumes to pay the “costs” of its enterprise by buying drilling rights, paying landholders, and so forth. But as it drills, it imposes costs in the form of harm to humanity and the planet it neither acknowledges nor compensates. It contaminates the water supply, releases methane into the atmosphere (20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas), and it takes to market a product that when used and combusted, contributes to global warming and the potential destruction of life on earth. None of those costs – “byproducts” of but integral to fracking – are included in the market price of natural gas, which thus seems “cheaper” than alternative energy or even than oil. Enter government, which is the default funder of externalities understood as social costs. As with monopoly, government has the right to regulate the market to offset or impose taxes on frackers to pay the social costs they fail to recognize; or even to ban fracking altogether (as New York state or the city of Pittsburgh have done). So, yes, since private markets fail to pay the social costs of their enterprise, there are justifiable limits on them.
Public goods and public harm are then ineluctable features of economic, social, and civic life, and the argument that markets are or can be autonomous, and that limits on them are never justified, is not just fictive but fraudulent. Public goods cannot be reduced or disintegrated into private goods. Air, water, the human genome, climate change, biodiversity, and carbon change (among others) are ineluctably public, and common will (democracy) rather than private choice is the only way they can be reasonably, fairly, and legitimately negotiated.
Finally, B&J are unconscionably reductive. They demean goods such as human dignity by defending their sale, and then insist buying and selling cannot really demean those goods but rather ennobles the money with which they are purchased! “Hey babe, sell me your body! No, I’m not commodifying your body, I’m de-commodifying money! Money’s cool, and when I put a price on your ass I am paying it an enormous compliment!”
The second crucial issue market fundamentalists overlooks is the intimate relationship between liberty and equality – the way in which liberty of choice depends on laws and rules that preserve it from the skewing impact of power and money. Freedom of speech is about equal voice in public affairs; when money is treated as its surrogate (as happed in the profoundly wrongheaded Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo), the object of free speech – equal influence in the political sphere – is fatally undermined. By confounding speech and money, the Court destroyed real political choice and made a mockery of American democracy.
It’s not just that you can’t always do for money what you do for free, it’s that what you do for free isn’t always freely done. Homelessness is not a free choice; neither is alcoholism. Although you may buy liquor “freely.” B&J offer multiple examples that work against their own argument. They condemn slavery but fail to recognize “wage slavery” of the kind Marx associated with starving paupers “voluntarily” selling their labor power to wealthy capital owners. Those who sell labor cheaply are constrained by abject need – survival – to do so. Same with another B&J example, prostitution. Non-desperate women, they say, can sell their bodies freely. But persons selling their bodies are by definition “desperate,” in moral and existential extremis, if not always financially strapped. Same with the “exploitative markets in surrogacy” that B&J are willing to prohibit. Yet “non-exploitative” markets are no different, since the very idea of surrogacy, selling the fruit of a human womb, is always exploitative. Desperation and exploitation are not just a matter of whether or not you have money in the bank.
The missing construct is power. Like all market zealots, B&J assume that power is top down, the exclusive property of the state. The truth is power is everywhere, and can operate bottom up, emerging quietly from the media, culture, and society as well as noisily from above. Bottom up power is the more compromising to freedom because it is hard to see and allows us to think we act freely because we are unconstrained from above. The reality of a power-pervaded market means that the market can no more secure equality than it can the competition on which its free choices depend. Maybe you can do for money what you do for free, but it turns out that little that people do for free is done freely, and even less of what they do for money is unconstrained. Free markets just aren’t. Which means the notion of markets without limits is simply oxymoronic.
Markets are only free when choice is made meaningful by equality, when competition is unhindered by monopoly, and when the interdependence of private and public goods along with the priority of the public over the private are guaranteed by democratic government. And it is precisely the limits which democracy and the law (the community) impose on markets that allow them to be free. Limits and markets are dialectically interwoven, and the point is not to eliminate politics but to legitimize democracy so that politics can adjudicate market relations. That is the task of the public sphere, whose objects are res publica and whose participants are not consumers but citizens.
B&J truly chase their own tails in trying to liberate markets from the very constraints that make markets free. They do the same when they tell us their aim is to “put philosophers out of the business of talking about the moral limits of markets.” Because what they don’t get is that philosophers are not in business, but in search of knowledge and truth that are not for sale.
In his remarkable forthcoming film How To Let Go of the World, Josh Fox (who made Gasland) reads a poignant sentence from a Zambian schoolgirl’s notebook: “Freedom is meaningless if there is poverty.” That is the simple point that eludes Brennan and Jaworski.
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. 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, 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.
 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).
 See Ilya Somin, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), chs. 1-3.
Reply to Barber: Even if Libertarianism Is Stupid, We’re Still Right
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 retract The Ethics of Voting and the forthcoming Against Politics (a book that Barber would truly hate).
The thing is, even if Barber were right about all this – that market fundamentalism is dumb and bad, that markets need the state to be free, that social democracy is the best system, that the public sector is vital for ensuring our freedom and equality, or whatnot – it has no bearing on our argument in Markets without Limits.
The debate about commodification (which Barber’s book Consumed is to some degree about) is not a debate about whether markets should be free, whether libertarianism is true, or whether we need strong democratic oversight and control over the market. Is instead a debate about what sorts of things may properly be for sale. The thesis of Markets without Limits is not that we ought to have free markets in everything, democracy and justice be damned. It’s instead that anything you may do for free, you may permissibly do for money. There are limits to how we sell, but not what we sell, except the trivial and boring limit that you shouldn’t sell some things you shouldn’t have or do, period.
In fact, libertarians can reject everything in our book, and hard left social democrats can accept everything we say.
The question of whether it is morally permissible to have a market in some good or service is not the same as the question of whether it’s permissible to have a free, completely unregulated market in that good or service. Our thesis is that there are no inherent limits to what can be bought and sold. But that’s compatible with thinking that some things, or even all things, should only be bought and sold in highly regulated markets. The question of whether or not markets should be free and unregulated is a red herring in the anti-commodification debate.
To illustrate, notice that the following two positions are coherent:
- Anti-Commodification Libertarianism: G. A. Rothbard, the genetically engineered child of Marxist G. A. Cohen and libertarian Murray Rothbard, thinks markets are bad, and that we should never buy or sell anything. He opposes all commodification, even of mundane items, such as political theory books. However, G. A. Rothbard also believes that people have absolute negative rights against being interfered with when they buy and sell goods. Just as our rights of free speech allow us to say things that are wrong to say, he thinks we have rights to buy and sell even though doing so is always immoral. Thus, G. A. Rothbard thinks justice prohibits any coercive regulation of the market, but also thinks nothing should be for sale.
- Pro–Commodification Regulationism: Jason Barber, the genetically engineered child of Jason Brennan and Benjamin Barber, believes that everything you may do for free you may do for money, but only inside heavily regulated markets, under strong democratic oversight, in the background of a socially just social democracy.
Only in one paragraph does Barber respond to our actual book, but unfortunately, he just pounds the table and asserts that some markets are essentially exploitative – that it’s impossible for those markets not to involve wrongful exploitation. For instance, he asserts it’s impossible for one to sell surrogacy services without exploiting someone. We’d like to ask him to give us an argument about why that’s the case, rather than just assert it. Sure, some such markets involve exploitation, but I can’t see how, say, my friends Ben and Jason, who are paying their happy, healthy, not-at-all desperate upper-middle class friend to carry a baby for them, are exploiting her. But if Barber can show me otherwise, I’ll send Ben and Jason a letter of censure.
Barber’s Consumed: Where’s the Beef?
Benjamin Barber’s book Consumed is a fascinating piece of anti-market rhetoric. However, it fails to provide almost any evidence at all for any of its conclusions.
Barber makes what we call a “corruption” objection to markets: he claims that 1) commodifying various goods and services, and 2) exposure to markets in general tends to harm our and our society’s character in various ways. Consumerism “infantilizes” adults. Markets draw us away from the civic forum and to the market; they reduce civic participation. Markets induce us to have a narrow-minded conception of liberty. They reduce important forms of diversity. They cause us to lose meaning.
These are all social scientific or empirical claims. Philosophical analysis, or the tools of political theory, can at best help us fix or make clear various definitions of terms and concepts. For instance, philosophy can help us determine which of competing conceptions of liberty might be better. But to establish that one thing causes another, you need the tools of the social sciences. Yet while Barber makes a series of extravagant causal claims in his book, he neglects proper social scientific methods. There’s a reason why none of the chapters were first published in the American Political Science Review—he doesn’t meet even minimal standards of evidence.
Instead, Barber’s main mode of argument is to first assert a strong causal claim (e.g., markets cause us to adopt a misguided liberal conception of liberty rather than a superior democratic conception), and then try to prove that claim either by 1) citing other theorists who assert it without evidence, or 2) by providing illustrative anecdotes. But as anyone who has taken a graduate-level methods class in political science or econometrics knows, a few anecdotes are insufficient to establish causal trends. Consider the figure below:
In the figure above, there is no statistically significant relationship that can be inferred between what I’m calling the “independent” and the “dependent” variables. Any line one draws will be statistically insignificant. Even if I added two or three more anecdotes, these still would be insufficient data to make any claims about correlation. Correlation is not sufficient to show causation, but non-correlation is almost always sufficient to show non-causation.
This is one of Barber’s essential problems. He doesn’t even get as far as making the undergraduate mistake of inferring causation from mere correlation. Rather, he fails to show us there is even correlation. For example, Barber claims that markets tend to corrupt us by eroding civic virtue in various ways. His main argument appears to go something like this:
The Civics Objection
- Markets encourage citizens to think of freedom as the ability to fulfill their own desires rather than to think of freedom as political autonomy.
- Therefore, markets encourage citizens to retreat from common civic life.
- Therefore, markets undermine civic virtue.
There are lots of problems with this argument. One is philosophical: Barber seems to have an overly narrow conception of civic virtue. But let’s put that aside. Even if we grant Barber’s his narrow view of what counts as civic virtue, he doesn’t establish either of his two premises.
Barber doesn’t actually give us any evidence that markets cause citizens to think of freedom as the ability to fulfill their own desires rather than to think of freedom as political autonomy. What Barber mostly does, instead, is to cite a range of political philosophers and economists who are friendly to markets, and who themselves advocate thinking of freedom as the absence of interference. He also notes that many people living in market societies accept this conception of freedom, though he does not provide us any interesting stats showing whether or not these conceptions of freedom are highly correlated with market societies. Moreover, Barber does not show us that living in a market society causes people to think this way. For all we know, consistent with the evidence he provides, people adopt market institutions because they already think this way. Or, perhaps (A) people accepting idea of freedom as the absence of interference and (B) people being friendly to markets have a common cause, (C).
We also don’t see any empirical evidence from Barber that market societies actually undermine citizens’ participation in democracy. Barber believes that markets draw us away from the forum and public life and into private concerns. But, again, he doesn’t provide proper evidence this is so. We might try to test this thesis by seeing whether more marketized societies have lower rates of political participation. To that end, in our book, Peter and I look at standard measures of voter turnout for the world’s democracies and then plot these against the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom rankings. We find a very slight but statistically significant positive correlation: all things equal, the more capitalist a society is, the higher voter turnout it has. We note in the book that this is not sufficient to prove for sure that markets do not reduce participation, but still, we’ve brought a knife to what’s supposed to be a gun fight, but in which the other party came unarmed.
For someone who decries consumerism and the supposed anti-intellectualism of capitalism, Barber is a strange and ironic character. He’s a member of the political science profession, but seems to have no respect for the basic methods of the field. Ironically, it seems like Barber is happy to violate standards of evidence or norms of argumentative rigor… for money and fame.
 Benjamin Barber, Consumed (New York: W. W. Norton and Co, 2008), pp. 131-32.
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?