Jason Brennan and Peter M. Jaworski, Markets without Limits. Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests, 2016
239 pp. ISBN 0415737354 paperback € 40,48
Matthias Uhl
First Online: 21 March 2016

In this small book, Jason Brennan and Peter M. Jaworski systematize and explicate their arguments against anti-commodification theorists. It is a generalization of Brennan’s prior work on the “Ethics of Voting”. Anti-commodification is the claim that some goods should not be bought and sold, i.e., traded on markets. Prominent examples of goods in question are adoption rights, organs, sex, or votes. Brennan and Jaworski take the arguments of anti-commodification theorists seriously, anticipate potential counter-arguments and rebut them one by one. Their essential moral answer to the problem raised by anti-commodification theorists can be summarized as follows: “If you may do it for free, you may do it for money.” It is not the commodification aspect which makes a market for murder wrong, but the inherent wrongness of killing another human being. The problem is not in the market, it’s in the product itself. Killing for free is as wrong as killing for money.

The book is structured in five main parts. The first three are captioned by a question: Should everything be for sale? Do markets signal disrespect? Do markets corrupt? The authors’ answer is no in each case. The fourth section carefully rejects market critics’ accusations of exploitation, harm to self, and misallocation through markets, while the fifth part debunks moral intuitions against markets. During these chapters they touch concrete and highly debated topics as the betting market for terrorist attacks, the market for organs, and the market for adoption rights, just to name a few examples.

Brennan and Jaworski make an effort to unravel the often unstructured and emotional objections of anti-commodification theorists in order to make them accessible for a rational discussion. They convincingly push forward the point that in many respects opponents of markets simply lack the empirical evidence for the claims they are making. If it is true, for example, that the act of buying transforms something sacred into a “mere commodity” in the eyes of the buyer, we should observe that bought pets are treated worse than pets which were given away. This is a testable assumption for which the critics of markets carry the burden of proof, but for which they are negligent to provide any evidence.

Even if one accepts the usually unproved objections to markets, they are, as Brennan and Jaworski show, very often objections against a specifically parameterized or completely unregulated design of a market rather than objections against the market per se. You could, for instance, disagree with an unregulated surrogacy market for the reason that a surrogacy mother might become attached to her child and then be forced to pass it on to the adoptive parents. This, however, is not an objection against a market for surrogacy in general. You could redesign the market such that the contract includes a “change of mind” clause which abolishes the contract in this case. Critics thus often confuse an objection to markets with an objection to an unregulated market. Or as Brennan and Jaworski would put it: “It’s the how, not the what”. In this sense, the title of their book, “Markets Without Limits” is a bit misleading, since what they really propose is “Markets Without Taboos”.

One important argument which the authors make is that many of our negative attitudes toward markets, which are sometimes merely of semiotic nature, are the contingent result of our cultural heritage. They provide numerous illustrative examples which show that giving and taking money for certain things need not deprive them of their “sanctity”, if one is willing to believe in such a category. They point to the fact that while our culture might find it obnoxious to pay one’s spouse for sex, other cultures find it respectful to leave a bank note under the pillow. They argue that even within our own western culture children’s insurance was initially considered morally condemnable by many, since it places a value on a child’s life, while it is considered responsible nowadays. According to the authors, one might want to stick to contingent moral values, if they guarantee for a peaceful society. This, however, does not release us from the moral obligation to rationally discuss commodification where the status quo is objectively associated with substantial harm to people. This is the case with organs, where a shortage is artificially caused by society’s insistence on fixing their price at a zero level. If the “death on the waiting list” is caused by our dogmatic tabooing of a market for organs, reason has to suppress our ill-founded moral aversion in order to promote better outcomes.

Brennan’s and Jaworski’s writing is pleasantly clear and their humor makes the book an entertaining read. One believes their honest moral indignation when they write about the ideological objections which hinder an effective market by the use of which numerous deaths could be avoided every day. Over the course of the book, the reader is reminded of their main mantra so many times that it is indeed hard to miss the point. In fact, one might find the didactical style of the book overly repetitive. This, however, does not weaken the quality of the important and correct argument which the authors make. This argument is too important to be missed, and thus deserves to be repeated: “If you may do it for free, you may do it for money.”