What’s Really Disgusting?
review by George Leef

If you have a great talent for doing something “high” and “noble,” shouldn’t you share that talent with your fellow human beings even if you’re not paid for it? Evidently many people used to think so, according to this passage from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations:

“There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, a sort of publick prostitution.”
Top opera singers, for example, were paid very well, Smith argued, in large part because such compensation was necessary to overcome the shame of falling into the avarice of the free market.
Today, of course, you would have a hard time finding anyone who believes that talented musicians (and dancers, artists, athletes, and so on) should share their labor out of purely altruistic motives and avoid the corruption of performing for money. However, the sentiment that there are some kinds of goods and services that should not be allowed for sale in the market remains strong. Many people harbor animosity toward a wide array of transactions, such as the sale of human organs or blood (see “Could PAYGO end the prohibition on paying Organ Donors?” p. 6), payments for pregnancy surrogacy, prostitution, human hair wigs, line-standing, and vote-buying. Their anti-commodification views are stoked or reinforced by intellectuals who write books and give lectures (usually for money!) that provide rationales for believing that it’s wrong for some things to be exchanged for money.
Entering the fray on the other side of this contretemps are Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski, both professors at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Their book, Markets without Limits, provides an overwhelming case against the anti-commodifiers. Stated simply, the authors’ thesis is that if you may do something for free, then you should be allowed to do it for money. “There are legitimate moral worries about how we buy,trade, and sell,” they write, “but no legitimate worries about what we buy, trade, and sell.” in other words, while some things are wrong in and of themselves and shouldn’t be exchanged for that reason, adding money to a transaction never turns an otherwise moral exchange into an immoral one.
Markets without Limits is a very carefully argued book. The authors present the work of their opponents fairly and confront those ideas not with rejoinders based on libertarian precepts, but with arguments that the anti-commodifiers themselves ought to accept. “We want to play and win in their ball park,” Brennan and Jaworski write. What results is a tour de force of philosophical argument that leaves the opponents’ camp routed and the ground strewn with gauntlets thrown down in challenge.
Markets and corruption / Here is a sampling of the anti-commodification claims that Brennan and Jaworski attack:
Anti-commodifiers often maintain that markets should not be allowed in certain goods because transactions might involve the exploitation of one party.We often hear, for example, that a market in human kidneys would be bad because many of the sellers would be poor people who are so desperate for money that the wealthy buyers will exploit them. in response, the authors show that human organ markets could be regulated in ways that would solve most if not all of the concerns about exploitation (although Brennan and Jaworski do not advocate such regulation). But instead of seeking such a solution to the alleged problem, the anti-commodifiers continue to insist that no market in kidneys should be allowed. That suggests to Brennan and Jaworski that some deeper, gut-level opposition to a market in kidneys is at work.
One of the book’s recurring themes, in fact, is that when the anti-commodifiers argue against permitting a market, the reasons they give are often a mask for an underlying aversion to voluntary trade. The anti-commodifiers employ high-sounding rhetoric as an excuse for imposing their preferences on the rest of us. When they succeed, the consequences are always harmful and the authors reserve their strongest language for condemning that—a point I’ll return to.
Another justification given by the anti-commodifiers is that markets in many (if not all) goods and services tend to corrupt people. That is to say,whenpeoplehave to think about monetary gains or losses when dealing with others, they become selfish and grasping rather than exemplifying ethically better, other-regarding behavior. Markets thus encourage defective character traits, they claim. Brennan and Jaworski consider five different kinds of “corruption” arguments: that markets encourage selfishness, crowd out better motives, lead to poor quality,reduce levels of civic engagement, and sometimes give people a stake in “bad” outcomes. By the time the authors finish confronting those arguments, the reader will wonder how anyone could have ever considered them convincing. The different cases for corruption are based on little more than anecdotes and utterly ignore a great deal of evidence that market incentives actually improve humans and their products.
Among many other points, Brennan and Jaworski observe that most of our great artists and composers were driven by the need for commercial success (Mozart, for instance, wrote his superb piano concerti to fill concert halls in Vienna and thereby fill his own pockets) and that the great humanitarian movements of the 19th century arose because commercial success had enabled large numbers of people to start caring about the plight of slaves, prisoners, the mentally ill, and animals.
The authors delight in showing the empirical evidence that, far from leading to corruption, market-based societies tend to be the least corrupt. They cite the work of Claremont neuroeconomist Paul Zak, who concludes that market societies cause people to deal more fairly with others, and of economist and behavioral scientist Herbert Gintis, who surveyed numerous studies on markets and concluded, “Movements for religious and lifestyle tolerance, gender equality, and democracy have flourished and triumphed in societies governed by market exchange, and nowhere else.”
Commodification and disgust /Another category of objections to markets Brennan and Jaworski identify are “semiotic,” which is to say that market transactions communicate “disrespect” or violate the “correct meaning” of some relationship. Most frequently, we hear the semiotic claim that when people trade goods for money, it causes them to view the items in question as “mere commodities.” That is the basis for a common argument against prostitution—it makes men think of women as mere commodities—and we also hear it from some animal rights enthusiasts who argue against permitting the sale of pets out of concern that markets make people view puppies and kittens as mere commodities instead of living things that deserve respect.
The authors have a host of rejoinders to these semiotic objections. One is that the advocates make a deceptive and logically flawed move when they claim that when people buy and sell commodities,that necessarily means that we view them as mere commodities. Actually, they note, it is quite possible for people to buy and sell goods and nevertheless maintain a respectful attitude. Evidence on the treatment of pets,for example, shows that purchased animals are treated better than ones taken for free.
After a lengthy analysis of all the varieties of arguments against markets, Brennan and Jaworski end with a sharp analysis of the anti-commodifier mindset in a chapter entitled, “The pseudo-Morality of Disgust.” For all the professed lofty concerns about society, the anti-commodifiers are essentially saying, “i’m disgusted by this and therefore it shouldn’t be allowed.” is disgust a reliable guide to ethics? The authors note that some scholars say it is, such as ethicist Leon Kass who argues that deep-seated feelings of revulsion or repugnance are a clue to facts about ethics. The authors strongly disagree, writing:
“Instead of counting on a rough-and-ready heuristic grounded in our primordial past to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong, we should instead rely on our considered judgments. if there is anything to be disgusted by, it is the fact that many life-saving and life-improving markets get legally blocked for want of a little reason and a little reflection.”
When the anti-commodifiers get their way and laws incorporating their disgust at certain transactions are imposed on society, the results are harmful and sometimes fatal. For instance, lawmakers and the public are disgusted by sharp price increases for suddenly scarce goods following a natural disaster, labeling the increases “price gouging.” But anti–price gouging laws result in empty stores and a de facto infinite price.
The same goes for the law that prevents a market in kidneys. While anti-commodifier theorists congratulate themselves on preventing anyone from suffering exploitation, thousands of people die from kidney failure. The book’s parting shot is devastating: “But third parties, the loud and obnoxious people standing on the sidelines, are screaming at the dying that saving their lives would come at too high a price of an uncomfortable turn in their stomachs.”
I think it will be a long time before we see another book that so wonderfully blends philosophy with public policy as Markets without Limits.