Commodification and the Freedom to Enjoy a Common Social Meaning

One of the stranger arguments against commodification Peter and I encountered holds that it is wrong to commodify certain things, because doing so would diminish other people’s freedom to enjoy having that good have a particular social meaning. Some excerpts from Markets without Limits:

Elizabeth Anderson claims that in order to produce the social conditions under which people can be autonomous, “Constraints may be needed to secure the robust sphere differentiation required to create a significant range of options through which people can express a wide range of valuations.” She says “people value different goods in different ways,” and to preserve their freedom we must create different “spheres that embody these different modes of valuation,” boundaries “not just between the state and the market, but between these institutions and other domains of self-expression.


Anderson has another argument. She claims that allowing the sale of sex reduces some people’s freedom. In particuar, it reduces some people’s freedom to have sex have the meaning they want it to have.

According to Anderson, people value having the freedom of being able to induce sexual pleasure in those whom they love. But, Anderson claims, people not only want the freedom to induce sexual pleasure in those they love, they also want the freedom of having sex insulated from money. She says that a moral culture that accepts prostitution makes it hard to “establish insulated social spheres where [sex] can be exclusively and freely valued as a genuinely shared and personal good.” The idea here is that Jane might not just want to give sexual pleasure to Kevin. She also wants sexual pleasure to be insulated from the market, such that the sex they enjoy together is something they both recognize as a “genuinely shared and personal good”. In a world where Kevin (or Jane) can buy sex, then the meaning of sex is different. So, Anderson concludes, allowing people to buy sex reduces the freedom of those who want sex to have a certain meaning.

Anderson is, in some sense, right. If people are free to treat sex as not having the meaning that Jane wants it to have, then Jane is not free to have sex have the meaning she wants it to have. So the freedom of some to treat sex as having one meaning conflicts with Jane’s freedom to have sex have a different meaning.

But it’s hard to see why this has any moral upshot. To show that buying and selling sex is wrong, it’s not enough to point out, as Anderson does, that prostitution reduces Jane’s freedom to have sex have the meaning she wants it to have. We need an additional premise, namely that Jane is entitled to have other people create a social environment in which sex has that special meaning. [Bold added for emphasis]


We’re happy to grant Anderson that commodifying sex does indeed remove or diminish the freedom in question. But, so what?

Consider, as a parody: Suppose we prefer that Swedish progressive death metal be seen as sacred. Suppose, in our view, Swedish progressive death metal should not be bought and sold on the market, but should only developed through gift exchanges inside churches. If our culture allows Swedish progressive death metal to be bought and sold, it thereby reduces our freedom to have Swedish progressive death metal have the sacred meaning we want it to have. But, even if so, so what? Other people don’t have any moral duty to ensure that Swedish progressive death metal have the meaning we want it to have. When they don’t treat it as sacred, we lose our “freedom” to have it have the meaning we want, but we are not entitled to this freedom, and no one owes it to use to help us realize that freedom. We don’t have any right to impose our view of the music on others, and they have no duty to comply with it.

Similarly, Anderson is correct that if people can buy and sell sex, this may reduce Jane’s freedom to make sex with Kevin have exactly the kind of meaning she would like it to have. But that does not make it wrong to buy and sell sex. Rather, we need an independent argument here that shows us that other people are entitled to supply Jane with the social environment she desires, that is, that other people are obligated to impute the meaning onto sex that Jane wants sex to have. So, Anderson’s argument doesn’t show that selling sex is wrong because it reduces freedom. Rather, it presupposes that selling sex violates a particular meaning that some people are entitled to demand that others share. Jane wants sex to be seen as an exclusive gift. If others don’t treat sex that way, this reduces her freedom to make sex be seen that way. But Jane isn’t, as far as we can tell, entitled to have that kind of freedom, so there is nothing wrong with taking it away from her.

I’d prefer to live in a world where Swedish progressive death metal had a higher status. I think Opeth’s Ghost Reveries is a far more valuable contribution to culture than what all the humanities academic fields, excluding philosophy, have collectively produced in the past 100 years. But, so what? No one owes me the freedom to have this form of metal have the meaning I want it to have.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Swami Cat

    This falls into the field of tolerance. It is possible to be offended by others’ actions. This creates a zero sum dynamic between what others do and how I feel about it. I am offended by beards, or tattoos or gay kissing, or people who don’t pray hourly to the cosmic muffin monster. It never ends. Any action or lack of action can potentially “harm” a person in such a manner. In addition, it is possible for every human on earth to be offended in opposite ways (I am offended when people don’t have beards, you are offended when they do).

    The reasonable response is inherent in liberalism. It’s considered unproductive to force our beliefs on others absent their having a more substantial impact on our lives. Intolerance is not considered grounds for interfering with others. We are intolerant of intolerance, so to speak.

    If I had to suggest a rule of thumb for tolerating intolerance, it might be that — if intolerance is used to justify restrictions on freedom or violence to prohibit such actions — it has to be agreed by a large supermajority with a sunset clause requiring routine rereview. Better yet, just don’t legislate or regulate issues of intolerance.

    Harm caused by others doing other than what we want them to do, should not be legitimized. Another type of harm which is best not considered legitimate for control is harm caused by not being chosen as cooperative partner.

    • adrianratnapala

      The reasonable response is inherent in liberalism. It’s considered
      unproductive to force our beliefs on others absent their having a more
      substantial impact on our lives.

      Yes, but liberalism goes further, it also provides Anderson a way to “establish insulated social spheres where [sex] can be exclusively and freely valued as a genuinely shared and personal good”. Those spheres are called marriages, or relationships. However much prositutes are tolerated, Jane still has a moral right that her boyfriend not visit them. That becomes (or aught to become) a legal right if they are married.

      Andersons problem only exists for the sort of liberalism that thinks it’s OK to cheat on your spouse and to break promises more generally. More generally still, the problem only exists if you are blind to all the ways people form small assoiciations within a larger society.

  • José L. Ricón

    Keep those progressive metal examples coming!

    • Jason Brennan
      • José L. Ricón

        Now for something more in topic: There’s an underlying criticism below the Andersonian argument, and it is that every action we undertake has an effect on others, and that “harming” is a socially constructed concept (up to a point, see the David Friedman examples with lasers: a laser pointer is harmless, a several megawatt laser is not). They would argue that painting your house yellow, insulting others, setting one price too high or too low, etc. can harm others. Therefore, the argument goes, society, via the State, has to set rules of what is harm and what is not. The

        What would you say to this general argument?

        PS Check out Leprous, they’re awesome (Songs: Rewind, White, Coal, and Chronic)

        • Theresa Klein

          What makes you think the state is omniscient about knowing the correct set of rules about harm?

          • José L. Ricón

            Note that I don’t endorse the argument. I was doing some devil advocacy. My own solution goes along the line of having the gray areas defined by a competitive polycentric system via consequentialism and efficiency seeking.

          • AP²

            Who says there is some “correct” set of rules? It may just be important that the set is universally known, and the rules that compose it may be arbitrary.

            Taking an example from a discussion by Terry Anderson on Free-market Environmentalism:

            Here in Montana we have an issue regarding the wolves that were reintroduced in 1995 into Yellowstone National Park; exploded in population faster than any biologist ever imagined. They wander outside the park, and once in a while they kill livestock. This is a classic Coase problem: Is the wolf eating the livestock an externality to the farmer, or are the cattle being in harm’s way an externality to the wolf lover? And my favorite example is an environmentalist Hank Fischer, who said: I’m not going to debate who has what right. I’m going to just stipulate that the rancher has a right to be predator-free; I’m going to raise private money and pay the ranchers if a wolf kills livestock. Done deal. Market transaction. And he has now expanded this to actually paying farmers to move their cattle out of harm’s way. This is Ronald Coase writ large. And I think it’s a great example of how free market environmentalism takes care of this conflict between wolves and livestock owners.

            (The whole discussion is interesting, by the way: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2014/08/terry_anderson.html )

            The solution was to just stipulate a rule (that ranchers have a right to be predator-free). It doesn’t matter if it’s “the” correct rule – it just matter that some existed.

          • Except that Coase goes a bit further. If transaction costs were negligible, alternative rules would tend toward the same result, because people would bargain for rights to break the rules. Unfortunately, transaction costs are often large and sometimes prohibitive, in which case one rule may produce a better outcome than an alternative. In such cases, which rule should be in force depends upon overall comparative costs and benefits. Who is going to do that calculation? In the common law it has been done, in a rough and ready way, by judges.

  • King Goat

    I think your example of music is a very, very good one since it’s not uncommon to come across artists who sneer at ‘commercialization’ in their chosen field as ‘ruining’ the field itself in some vague way. You have to wonder, would they support measures to prohibit commercial activity involving their fields?

    I’d be curious as to what you think about what might be the opposite end here, that is, instead of coercive prohibitions to prevent commercialization rather the use of subsidy to promote some spheres where the field can exist somewhat free of concerns about commercial viability. I’m thinking of NPR and PBS for example, which I’ve heard defended along the lines of ‘it’s good to have some venues for radio and television programming free of market concerns, and the way to get that is through public subsidy’. One still has market possibilities, they’re not prohibited, it’s just that public subsidy ‘carves out’ little spheres where that’s not a concern (or at least controlling).

    Of course this would indeed be interesting applied to sex (!) I think the same basic viewpoints are at work…

    • Jason Brennan

      Interesting thoughts, indeed. Have you read Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture and Good and Plenty: The Creative Successes of American Arts Funding? I think both make strong empirical arguments against the need for public funding for the kinds of reasons you cite. But part of the debate here is about what counts as quality, too. Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of NPR than PBS.

  • JFA

    I think you might grant too much to Anderson. It’s unclear that one needs society to give meaning to something we value in order for that thing to have meaning to us. There is a ready example about the value of restricting certain types social exchange: gay marriage. One of the arguments from some of those who oppose gay marriage is that it devalues the institution of marriage and each existing marriage. Proponents of gay marriage rightly claim that it is a bit moronic to think that allowing gays to marry actually devalues any existing marriage. The similarity of this to your example is not quite exact, but I think it points to an intuition that arguments like Anderson’s are more mood affiliation than anything else. At the very least, proponents like Anderson need to do a lot more work to show that society (rather than the individuals involved) must provide the meaning of these social exchanges.

  • Jameson Graber

    The argument to which you’re responding is so characteristic of modern liberalism. There is no longer any transcendent moral order which could possibly say anything about our personal lives, so it must have something to do with “freedom.” The problem is, it doesn’t have anything to do with freedom. Take away any moral authority and you’ve got no foundation to stand on when you critique things like prostitution. So I see many liberals as puritans in libertarian clothing: behind every use of the word “freedom” there is really a belief in traditional morality at work in some capacity.

    So I’m more interested in your response to honest puritans. What if there really is just something bad, degrading, sinful, whatever about selling sex? What if there is truly such a thing as “sacred,” and romantic love is an example? Or if you’re only impressed by empirical arguments, what if the data showed that women (or men, but I’m guessing women here) were treated worse in societies that openly tolerated prostitution? I don’t know why libertarians seem to laugh off moral puritanism as if there weren’t just a little bit of common sense in it.

    • Jason Brennan

      We try to take the puritans very seriously. So seriously, indeed, that we spend 180 pages looking at every argument they make. This is just one of them. But we couldn’t find any that seem to work.

      • Jameson Graber

        Fair enough.

      • Theresa Klein

        Thge puritains in liberal clothing also make better arguments than the “honest puritains”. “There really is just something bad … about selling sex” doesn’t make for a very productive discussion.

  • David Gordon

    Richard Titmuss, in The Gift Relationship, used an argument like Anderson’s against permitting people to sell blood.

  • disqus_QZX8ENhLyb

    Ideas and words have consequences. To facilitate good, understandable communications, we must define our terms (words).
    “Marriage,” for example, for centuries meant the cohabitation and commitment of exclusivity of intimacy between a man and a woman.

    “Cohabitation” means two or more persons (sex unspecified) living together. Marriage and cohabitaton are not interchangeable in meaning.

    Now along comes some who want “marriage” to have the same meaning as “cohabitation.” If one accepts that definition, then what is to prevent “marriage” from meaning a human cohabiting with a bonobo, intelligent chimpanze, dog, sheep, cow, or whatever, and engaging in intimate relations? Nothing.

    DEFINE YOUR TERMS COMPLETELY AND STICK TO THEM ! Otherwise it’s GIGO [Garbage In Garbage Out.]

  • Theresa Klein

    Well, banning prostitution also very obviously decreases some people’s freedom to have sex have a completely different meaning from the one the people Anderson thinks ought to have the freedom to have it have one particular meaning.
    Why is the freedom of group A to make sex socially special more important than the freedom of group B to make sex informal and commodified?

  • Mark Rothschild

    This only makes sense for those who believe in positive rights (leftists/progressives). Is it possible to be a libertarian and believe in positive rights? I would think not.

    • Jason Brennan

      She can frame this as a negative duty–I have a duty not to interfere with other’s freedom by violating certain meaning conventions