By: Luke Semrau
Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski’s Markets Without Limits makes a welcome contribution to the debate over commodification. Its central thesis is provocative: ‘If you may do it for free, then you may do it for money’ (10). It is also well-defended, clearly argued, and empirically informed. It takes as its target ‘anti-commodification theorists’, such as Michael Sandel (2012), Elizabeth Anderson (1993) and Debra Satz (2010), who hold that markets can ‘transform otherwise permissible activities into wrongful actions’ (12). Brennan and Jaworski’s strategy is to present the best anti-commodification arguments, and to show that each fails. This indirectly lends support to their thesis, and shifts the burden of proof to the opposition. They also diagnose the anti-commodification theorists’ mistake: ‘their problem is not really with what is being sold, but howit’s being sold’ (29). Adjusting the time, place, and manner of the exchange, they maintain, can, in perhaps every case, render permissible markets in everything. So it is argued.
The book is divided into five parts, the first of which introduces and clarifies Brennan and Jaworski’s positive view. Care is taken here, as their position is more nuanced than their book’s title might suggest. Consider first the normative assumptions on which the argument proceeds. They do not arrive at their conclusion by way of disputed premises about the value of liberty. Theirs is not a libertarian defence of libertarian values. Instead, they aim to ‘accept most of the moral commitments of the anti-commodification theorists and still debunk their conclusions’ (22). In this way their approach is maximally concessive. If successful, they will show, not that their opponents are mistaken about fundamental issues in ethics, but that they are mistaken about the normative status of markets.
Brennan and Jaworski’s position should not be confused with a more permissive, and less plausible one. They reject inherent limits on the market. This is compatible with recognition of other normative constraints. If some good ought not be possessed at all, e.g. child pornography or nuclear weapons, then it ought not be sold. The problem with markets in these goods is not the markets, ‘it’s that the items for sale should not be possessed, period’ (11). Thus, Brennan and Jaworski accept the Principle of Wrongful Possession according to which, ‘If it is inherently morally wrong for someone to possess (do, use) X, then (normally) it is morally wrong for that person to buy or sell X’ (11). A second class of exchanges is excluded as incidentally impermissible. If you promised to keep something, for example, then you do something wrong when you sell it. In such cases what is wrong is violating an independent moral requirement. The market’s role is incidental; it doesn’t ‘introduce wrongness where there was not any already’ (10). So there are indeed limits on the market, but not the kind that undermine the authors’ thesis.
A further point of clarification. Brennan and Jaworski’s position is not about the merits of free and unregulated markets. That suggestion is dismissed as a ‘red herring’ (25). Rather, their view concerns what goods, in principle, may permissibly be sold. And their defence of this, they rightly stress, is ‘compatible with thinking that some things, or even all things, should only be bought and sold in highly regulated markets’ (25). The qualification here is crucial. Not infrequently objections to markets in specific goods, like human kidneys or women’s sexual labour, are better understood as objections to sales of those goods under objectionable circumstances. But markets can be arranged in meaningfully different ways. They are, Brennan and Jaworski explain, ‘a bit like guitar amps’ as both have ‘a range of variables that can be put to different settings’ (39). Some amps are finicky, performing well only under a very narrow range of settings. The same is said of markets. Markets may be designed in myriad ways. What’s the form of payment? How are prices set? Who participates? These and other variables determine the ‘manner of market exchange’ (39). Yet, if this is correct, and anti-commodification theorists’ opposition attaches to the conditions of the sale, not the thing sold, then their critique misses its mark.
Having sketched their positive view, Brennan and Jaworski turn to assess the most influential objections to commodification. The content is divided into 15 self-contained chapters, and organized into three parts. Those already steeped in the literature will appreciate the thorough yet concise survey of existing positions. And the uninitiated will benefit from the lucid and accessible presentation of the debate.
Particularly original is Part II, which contains an insightful discussion of what Brennan and Jaworski call semiotic objections. Such objections hold, independent of any other moral concern, that ‘the act of commodifying certain objects is essentially disrespectful and degrading of those objects . . . because of a meaning that attaches to market activities’ (47). On this suggestion, certain market transactions are expressive and communicative. A purchase can be a performance, one which may offend or signal disrespect. This form of opposition is especially common, with nearly every anti-commodification theorist forwarding one or another version of the challenge. The kernel of Brennan and Jaworski’s reply is this: ‘in the absence of other deontological or non-communicative concerns, pure semiotic objections to markets fail, because consequentialist considerations allow us to put a price on and judge codes of semiotics’ (83). They observe that whatever meanings we impute to objects are likely contingent and mutable. And, they maintain, if those meanings aren’t serving us well, they should be revised. If kidney sales would save and improve many lives, but such sales express disrespect, we should change our semiotics. The suggestion, to be clear, is not that the purported violation identified by the semiotic objection is outweighed or overcome by countervailing considerations. Rather, the claim is that semiotic objections lack independent cogency.
Worries about the market’s corrupting influence are taken up in Part III, and concerns about exploitation, harm, and misallocation are addressed in Part IV. This discussion contains much of interest, including the authors’ treatment of some perennial objections to commodification.
Up to this point, Brennan and Jaworski have systematically presented and assessed many serious challenges to their thesis. Much of this is convincing. However, cognizant of our imperfect human psychology, the authors appreciate the limits of such appeals. The powerful intuitions that animate resistance to commodification are not easily dislodged. They insist, however, that these persistent feelings are an unreliable guide to ethics; ‘our moral intuitions are out of line with our moral demands’ (198). This view is defended in Part V, where Brennan and Jaworski offer a debunking explanation for such intuitive opposition to commodification.
The book covers considerable ground, sometimes in great detail, and there is much to dispute. Before turning to my substantive critique, however, I want to register a lesser concern. Satz is frequently mentioned among the anti-commodification theorists at whom the authors take aim (7, 12, 35, 50). As they characterize her work, like other ‘critics of the market’, Satz aims to ‘identify things that are normally permissible for adults to possess, own, have, occupy, provide, or use, but which are not permissible for those adults to trade, sell, and/or buy’ (12). This does not accurately capture Satz’s view. On her account, what ultimately explains why a specific market is objectionable is that its operation undermines ‘the conditions that people need if they are to relate as equals’ (Satz 2010: 94). It is this higher-order property that renders markets noxious. So any kind of market may qualify. ‘Thus’ she explains, ‘on my account credit or housing markets may become more objectionable than sex markets’ (Satz 2010: 110). To assimilate Satz’s view to those of Anderson and Sandel obscures this crucial difference. Her account, in the final analysis, may fare as poorly as her peers’. That conclusion, however, requires a separate argument, one that addresses what’s distinctive about her view. Absent that, it’s not clear that the objections Brennan and Jaworski level against ‘anti-commodification theorists’ have force as challenges to Satz’s account.
Questions of interpretation aside, I now offer a pair of critical remarks that target the basic argument for Brennan and Jaworski’s positive view.
There is an ambiguity in the claim ‘I can eat everything on the menu’. On the ambitious reading, I claim to be able to eat a token of each and every food type on the menu. On the modest reading, I claim only to be able to eat a token of any onefood type on the menu. There is a similar ambiguity in Brennan and Jaworski’s position. Their thesis ‘If you may do it for free, then you may do it for money’, admits of two interpretations. Understood one way, their view is substantive and controversial. Understood another way, it verges on trivial. Unfortunately, the arguments on offer appear only to support the latter interpretation. I shall first more clearly distinguish between the two readings of their thesis, and then show why their defence of the stronger claim falls short.
The interesting and bold interpretation of Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis holds that all that is permissibly possessed may – all at once – be permissibly bought and sold under some market arrangement. Call this interpretation
All at Once. For all things that are permissibly possessed, we may devise markets for all such things to be permissibly sold.
If this is correct, then because kidneys, babies and sex may be permissibly possessed, so too may they may be bought and sold. All at Once is like the claim that I can eat a token of each food type on the menu. If vindicated, All at Once effectively ends the philosophical debate over commodification.
The less interesting interpretation of Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis has it that each thing (considered individually) that is permissibly possessed now may – under some market arrangement – be permissibly bought and sold. Call this interpretation
Any One. For any thing that is permissibly possessed, we may devise a market for that thing to be permissibly sold.
Kidneys, babies and sex may be permissibly possessed, and if Any One is correct, then any one of those goods (but not necessarily all of them at once) may be permissibly sold under some market arrangement. Any One is like the claim that I can eat a token of any one food type on the menu. This makes a weaker claim than All at Once. It asserts that one may permissibly market any good, but, unlike All at Once, it says nothing about the permissibility of marketing more than one at a time.
Unfortunately, Brennan and Jaworski’s reasoning appears only to support Any One. Consider the form of their argument. To show that there are no inherent limits to the market, they ‘articulate, explain, and then debunk the various arguments anti-commodification theorists have produced’ (22). This piecemeal approach is importantly limited. It can establish nothing more than Any One. Yet this claim matters little, if at all. Because none in the debate are universally opposed to commodification, none need to deny Any One. Consistent with it is the possibility that certain goods cannot permissibly be marketed together. What matters, but hasn’t been shown, is whether there are jointly realizable market arrangements under which all goods may be permissibly sold.
One might resist the foregoing. Brennan and Jaworski, it may be claimed, are not offering a deduction. Instead, they are trying to shift the burden of proof to those who would oppose commodification. They reason, ‘if we can repeatedly show that the critics’ complaints are unfounded, this builds a case for our thesis’ (22). So understood, theirs is a kind of optimistic generalization. They have considered a host of goods claimed to be inherently incompatible with market exchange, and found that in each case such claims were false. Some market arrangement was found suitable. As each additional good is shown to be permissibly commodified, the case against commodification is weakened. Even if establishing Any One falls short of establishing All at Once, it may suffice to shift the burden of proof to anti-commodification theorists.
This response is not convincing. A plausible position to take in this debate holds that commodification is fine, just as long as there isn’t too much of it. Some may, like the authors, be unconcerned about what is sold. But, unlike the authors, they may be very much concerned that it not be everything. Jonathan Wolff (2011) fits this description. He observes that even if there are no goods that ought to be excluded from the market, ‘it does not follow that everything should be supplied on the market’ (Wolff 2011: 186). On his view, ‘it may not matter so much what is in the market sphere and what is not, as long as the non-market sector is significant in size’ (Wolff 2011: 186). Anti-commodification theorists of this stripe may accept Any One, but regard the optimistic generalization as a fallacy of composition.
There is another reason to be sceptical about just how far the burden of proof has been moved. Brennan and Jaworski rely heavily on the idea that market regulation can assuage many, if not all, of the anti-commodification theorists’ concerns. Like a finicky amp, they suggest, we have to adjust the ‘settings’ of the market. Different settings produce different outputs. And there are a lot of options. ‘[I]f we can find even one ‘setting’ for a particular market’, they explain, ‘then our thesis stands’ (40). While they are right to stress the significance of market regulation, their analogy should not be accepted. Markets are importantly not like amps. Amps are discrete. Adjustments made to one amp do not affect the performance of others. But adjustments made to one specific market may have dramatic consequences for other markets. Even if it is true that kidneys may be permissibly sold, and babies may be permissibly sold, and sex may be permissibly sold, it doesn’t follow that kidneys, babies and sex may be permissibly sold under jointly realizable conditions. Yet, this is what must be shown to support the interesting interpretation of their thesis, All at Once.
Brennan and Jaworski’s argumentative strategy, and their analogy – specific markets are like guitar amps – make a convincing case for Any One. It is much less clear that they’ve established the more ambitious claim All at Once.
Brennan and Jaworski accept limits on the market that follow from the Principle of Wrongful Possession: ‘There are some things that people inherently should not have – indeed, that should not even exist – and, as a consequence, people should not buy or sell’ (15). Child pornography and nuclear weapons, they explain, should not be sold because such things should not be possessed. The suggestion seems to be that certain objects are inherently wrong to possess because their production or use essentially involves a rights violation or intolerable harm. It then follows as ‘a trivial consequence’ that such goods are wrong to buy and sell (11).
I suggest that this amounts to an unjustifiable limit on the market. Limits are unjustifiable when they make things worse from the perspective of the very same value cited as justification for their imposition. Brennan and Jaworski, in accepting the Principle of Wrongful Possession, would exclude as impermissible certain specific markets that would make an unadulterated positive normative contribution.
A specific market’s normative contribution is a function of the difference it makes. But specific markets feature in a complex market system. The difference they make is not discernable at the level of the transaction. We may know everything there is to know about the transactions in a specific market – they might all be absolutely bad – but we will not yet know that market’s normative contribution. Consider
Hell. Sexual abuse of children is at level 10. A market in child pornography emerges and sexual abuse of children decreases to level 2. You can close the market with the push of a button, but doing so will return sexual abuse of children to level 10.
We all agree that sexual abuse of children is odious, so it’s obvious that you ought not push the button. That specific market would make a positive normative contribution in those horrific conditions. Hell shows how the very same considerations that explain why child pornography is bad – that it involves intolerable harm to children – may in fact count against prohibiting a market in child pornography.
To be sure, Brennan and Jaworski explicitly set aside the question of whether some things that shouldn’t be possessed might still be permissibly bought and sold. They write, ‘even if there are goods and services that ought not be possessed in the first place, it’s an open, empirical question whether commodifying those goods and services might improve upon the status quo . . . Examining just when this is so goes beyond the scope of our book’ (18). If this expresses willingness to reject the Principle of Wrongful Possession, then I am encouraged by it.
Markets Without Limits offers a sustained and empirically informed defence of a novel – perhaps radical – position in the debate over commodification. While I suspect few will be persuaded of its central thesis, the number and variety of arguments on offer is impressive. The debate over commodification will continue, but Brennan and Jaworski have moved it forward.