Markets without Limits, a review

If you may do it for free, you may do it for money

Jason Brennan & Peter Jaworski

 markets without limits 2Recently, Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski released ‘Markets Without Limits‘, their new book on market morality. This is a much needed contribution, given that the literature was plagued by work against commodification, or with a negative moral evaluation of certain commercial practices (sex trade, organ markets, etc.)

The book comprises four parts. In the first one, the book’s purpose and the debates they tackle are explained. As their motto “If you may do it for free, you may do it for money” says, they don’t believe in the existence of the so called intrinsic market limits, but they do think that there may be contingent limits. Many of the critics of some markets accept a fundamental asymmetry: that something may be wrong if done for money, but not if done for free. This is criticized in the book.

Even then, there exists the possibility that there are some markets, they authors say, that are wrong, but not inherently wrong. For example, a child  pornography market is wrong, but it is not wrong because it’s sold (perhaps it’s worse to make profit of it, but marketization itself does not turn a good activity into a bad one), as giving child pornography away for free is also wrong. The wrongness of that market resides in child pornography itself, because (like slavery), it violates children’s rights, independently of whether it’s sold or not. Also, perhaps it’s also wrong to sell something if one has promised to keep it, or for example to sell a baseball bat to someone you know will use it to beat his wife. But let’s be clear that it is not the market that makes these things wrong; gifting the object one has promised to keep, or giving the bat away for free to the individual who will use it to beat his wife are the source of the problem.

There are also contingent limits, like when people complaint about markets in China due to working conditions. They really don’t have complaints against markets per se. We could design markets without that characteristics (prohibit markets that don’t treat workers well) to show that the markets themselves are not the problem, although that might come at a cost. We should also differentiate between legal and moral permisibility: the authors are concerned with the latter, since we might not be justified in prohibiting something, with the legal penalties and punishment associated with the prohibition, even if it’s immoral. Cheating on your husband/wife might be one such case.

The criticism they address are mainly conservative critiques: that the market corrupts us in some way, that it degrades, perverts or violates the sanctity of things or people that are in contact with the market, or that in some way it expresses a lack of respect for that which is traded with. It’s a pity that the authors take four chapters, the entire part I, to explain what the debate is about. There are many unnecessary examples to explain the content.

For exploitation critiques and the likes, I think that they set themselves the bar too low, even if they say that they do not:

What we are calling the manner of a market exchange consists of the following variables, which we can call the seven dimensions of market manner […]. If each of the seven dimensions had only three options (although there are many more), that would give us 3 7 possible permutations, or 2,187 different kinds of market manner. If we were to add time and place, we would have many, many more. To overcome the anti-commodification objection to commercial surrogacy, we need to find only one out of at least 2,187 different kinds of manners of markets that overcomes the objections to make our point

In the second part they present us the different conservative criticisms of the kind we were talking about, that is, semiotic: the criticism of the mere commodity, and the criticism of the wrong currency or signal. 24 carat gold material, kryptonite for anticomodification theorists, a part that outshines the rest of the book. The type of criticism they address are the likes of:

Selling organs would be to degrade the people to the level of cars and apples. It is treating parts of people as commodity to be bought and sold, when they deserve dignity instead of being mere instruments. ~ House seal

Or they argue that such markets [kidney markets] promote a degrading, objectifying view of the human person, as a collection of spare parts. ~ What Money Can’t Buy – Sandel, page 110

Even if buyers did not mistreat the children they purchased, a market in children would express and promote the wrong way of valuing them. Children are not properly regarded as consumer goods but as beings worthy of love and care. ~ What Money Can’t Buy – Sandel, page 10

In the footnotes we can find many citations of other anticommodification authors making similar style arguments. A very good sign of the quality of this book is that it explains this moral critiques of markets more clearly than the anticomodification theorists (e.g. Sandel or Satz) themselves. As Brennan and Jaworski point out, this kind of generalized critique of markets (it has been applied to art, healthcare, organs, parental right/adoptions) is false. The fact that someone buys and sells something, plausibly, converts that what is bought and sold into a commodity by definition. Commodities, seems, are things that are bought and sold on the market, but this is too trivial.

Commodities are defined as objects which are offered for sale or are “exchanged in a market.  [17]

This raises a further question. Why is then, the act of converting something into a commodity wrong? There seems to be something hidden we are not taking into account. Note that if we just used this definition to criticize commodification, it would be a poor argument, a circular argument. ‘Buying and selling X is wrong because it commodifies X’ really is ‘Buying and selling X is wrong because X is bought and sold’. We need more something else in the definition that, for example, Anderson (an anticommodification theorist) uses:

A practice treats something as a commodity if its production, distribution, or enjoyment is governed by one or more norms distinctive to the market. Market norms structure relations among the people who produce, distribute, and enjoy the thing in question. For example, in market transactions the will and desire of the parties determines the allocation between them of their freely alienable rights. Each party is expected to look after her own interests, neither party is expected to look after the interests of the other, or of third parties, except to the minimal extent required by law

As we see, for Anderson treating something as a mere commodity is to treat something as if it only had purely instrumental value. But this is wrong, as these authors recurrently use one definition or another strategically as it is fit for their purposes. Buying and selling does not imply that something has a purely instrumental value, as people buy pets and love them a lot, being part of their own family. Also, religious objects and art is traded with, but many people who buy these objects treat them with respect and reverence, not as something merely instrumental. This is why the critique is false: it makes generalized psychological claims that are empirically wrong.

From here, to answer the signal and currency critiques (using money or trading with X is wrong because there is a certain meaning in the act of trading or in money itself) they show all sorts of anthropological and sociological evidence that those meanings with which money or trade are imbued are a social construct. A curious example is that of the Merina people:

For the Merina people of Madagascar, monetary gifts carry no such stigma of being impersonal or thoughtless ~ Markets Without Limits

Among the Merina people, men are expected to give cash after sex. Failure to do so is seen as disrespectful. The Merina do distinguish between marital relationships and prostitution, and they do not believe cash exchanges for sex treat wives like prostitutes. Cash simply does not mean for them what it means for us. For them, the thing that separates wives from prostitutes is not the exchange of money for sex, but whether the relationship is formal or informal, loving or impersonal, serious or casual. For Zelizer, the Merina men are in a sense buying sex, but they do so in order to express respect for their wives. ~ Markets Without Limits

And why is it important that these meanings are, in fact, socially constructed? Because if there are great costs in upholding the meanings, the right thing to do is to criticize the social construct, not the market. Suppose that saying ‘son of a bitch’ cured cancer. Should we abstain from using ‘son of a bitch’ because it is offensive or should we modify its meaning and the way we use it? Obviously the latter, and in the case where meaning cannot me modified, the right thing to do is to keep using ‘son of a bitch’. What would be wrong would be the meaning others assign to it. This seems the case for certain types of organ markets, that can save many lives, insurance markets that without them orphans and disabled people would have less resources, some kind of market in parental rights (adoptions) that can help children to be placed in more caring families (this market is addressed in the book) or have parents at all, information markets on terrorist attacks that can help to better predict terrorist attacks and potentially save lives and so on.

Something great about the authors is that they have properly done their homework in the economics domain, explaining the distributive problems of queues of price controls, and that markets do have a great potential to be more egalitarian for a broad range of people thanks to the great abundance the produce, something that other authors in the literature either don’t seem to appreciate or ignore. They also pwn some authors that seem to criticize economists, as these authors attack neolithical theories of utility, and their criticisms don’t apply to more modern ones (von Neumann & Morgestern). Even then, sometimes it feel a bit stupid when reading their explanation of comparative advantage or other basic economic concepts since they really dumb it down. This,instead of being a critique of their work for not being more “sophisticated”, should instead generate worries about the level of economic knowledge of the other parties -like the anticommodifaction authors- of the debate.

From there, in the third part of the book, it is somewhat of a let down, as one finds copypaste (parts very similar or literally taken from Brennan’s Why not capitalism?). They deal with the question of whether markets make us worse people, or if they make us treat others wrongfully or instrumentally. After debunking anecdotal cases like the Israeli daycare centers, or the case of nuclear waste disposal in Switzerland, the authors present strong evidence against the anticommodification thesis. Another good thing is that they establish what kind of evidence should be relevant for the debate: “Data, Not Anecdotes”, “Causing Vs. Revealing Corruption”, “Might Markets Corrupt Us in Some Ways While Improving Us in Others?”, “Might Corruption Be a Price We’re Willing to Pay?” (Taking into account other virtues, are markets good on net?) Unfortunately, what one finds is that some of the evidence they present does not pass the standards they set. They present ‘evidence’ that consists of simple regressions between ‘economic freedom’ and corruption (it would be better to use the Ease of Doing Business from World Bank than the Economic Freedom Index, and similar results are found). They also don’t use even mere Granger causality tests (or mention papers about it, because there are and favorable to their thesis, countries with market oriented institutions and policies tend to be are less corrupt, this is a widely shared belief in development economics). There is also a lack of presentation of non anecdotal evidence against their thesis, even though there are answers to that evidence, and comparative studies of ‘moral’ corruption across different socioeconomic forms of organisation. It can’t be because of a lack of space, as they waste pages in section one.

Finally, in the final part they explain why those intuitions about ‘corruption’, and ‘degradation’ we feel when buying and selling certain things (without exploitation, harm to others…) are dubious and we shouldn’t trust them.

These are the main points of the book, although there are specific chapters about markets in votes, parental rights/adoptions markets and information markets.

In general this is a good book and an important contribution to the debate. I think their arguments are correct and they effectively reply to their critics. But should one buy the book? I am not 100% sure. It’s a good book, but the best parts of the book can be found in the article ‘Markets without semiotic limits‘ (material from part two), and the abovementioned links on corruption (perhaps also this). The rest of the material is not crucial to support the main thesis since it goes into the specifics of certain markets. If one has not been following the work of the authors or is interested on the commodification debate it’s worth the buy. There’s more beef in Markets Without Limits than in any other book on the subject of commodification. The copypaste from other work of one of the author’s was somewhat annoying, that’s why I’m not 100% sure about the purchase.*

*Note: Other co-bloggers don’t share the copypasting objection. If good work has been done by an author in one field, and said work is of interest to the discussion of other field, one can either do the research again, copy oneself, or cite others. The first one is inefficient, the latter is suboptimal, given the author already has a superior account of the field in question. Therefore, and given that not everyone will have read Why not capitalism?, it is a good thing that the evidence is presented this way, even when it may present a nuisance to regular followers of the great work of the authors, the latest work of which has been reviewed here.

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