Democracy, Book/Article Reviews

Cato Unbound on Markets without Limits

Ilya Somin enters the fray here with some worries about legalizing voting markets, as well as some further criticism of the anti-commodification theorists. An excerpt:

For example, many people oppose legalizing organ markets because they believe it would lead to exploitation of the poor. But most of them have no objection to letting poor people perform much more dangerous work, such as becoming lumberjacks or NFL players. If it is wrong to allow poor people to assume the risk of selling a kidney for money, surely it is even more wrong to allow them to take much greater risks in order to increase their income.

If you believe that organ markets must be banned because they exploit the poor, you must also argue that the poor should be forbidden to take jobs as lumberjacks and football players. If you believe that such considerations justify banning participation in organ markets even by the non-poor, than we must also categorically forbid monetary compensation for football players. Indeed, the case for banning the payment of football players is actually much stronger than that for banning organ markets. Unlike the ban on organ markets, a ban on professional football  would not  lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent people. 

Other critics believe that organ markets must be banned because it is inherently wrong to “commodify” the human body. Yet most of them have no objection to letting a wide range of people profit from organ transplants, including doctors, insurance companies, hospital administrators, medical equipment suppliers, and so on. All of these people get paid (often handsomely) for helping transfer organs from one body to another.

Perversely, the only participant in the process forbidden to profit from the “commodification” of organs is the one who provided the organ in the first place.

Also, Benjamin Barber writes a response to my response here. In his response, his disavows the fields of political philosophy and political theory in favor of partisan, in-the-dirt politics.

  • David

    This is why I don’t read Cato Unbound anymore.

  • martinbrock

    The perversities of actual, existing bans of organ sales notwithstanding, a more general principle entitling people, poor or otherwise, to sell a risk to their lives seems to permit gladitorial contests to the death. The NFL seems only to be a less risky instance of these contests, with rules limiting the risks. Does a market in everything permit people to fight to death and sell tickets? May a (classically) liberal community not rule out these contests?

    • Theresa Klein

      Does a market in everything permit people to fight to the death and sell tickets?
      See, this is how libertarians get their entertainment. By proposing that such things should be legal and then sitting back and watching the horrified reactions.
      The mere anticipation of the screaming tempts me to come out in favor of the proposition.

      • Sean II

        Don’t give away what we can sell. There’s gotta be a market in televising those horrified reactions.

        • Theresa Klein

          I believe it’s called ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ or something to that effect.

          • jdkolassa

            Personally, I’m way more mild.

            I just set up cameras, get an audience, then tell them I like Nickelback.

          • Sean II

            …opening for Phil Collins.

          • jdkolassa

            Pretty much, yeah.

          • Joshua Holmes

            I will fight anyone who hates “Easy Lover”.

          • Sean II

            Important to note that was a collaborative effort.

            Bailey interacted with Collins, converting the latter from a full to a partial agonist on the mu…sical suck receptor.

            You know, kinda like buprenorphine.

          • What makes Phil Collins so painful is that the distance-from-awesome-to-suck from early Genesis to “Buster” is enormous. Lots of artists fall from grace, but few fall quite so far.

            Still, even as late as ABACAB, Collins was kickng ass. And he is probably the only musical artist who is genuinely topical at a blog like Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Remember “It’s No Fun (Being An Illegal Alien)”?

          • Sean II

            You raise an intriguing possibility. “Invisible Touch”, invisible hand…

            Indeed, the band’s very decline might be understood in Rawlsian terms. Collins looked and saw that the group’s output was not redounding to the benefit of the “least well off” – i.e. those with the poorest musical taste in our society. From there he made a simple veil-of-ignorance argument, asking the others to imagine an artistic life born without the privilege of originality or judgement.

            One hour later, they recorded “In Too Deep”.

          • I prefer to think that the post-ABACAB albums were released for Straussian reasons.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            He was okay playing drums for Clapton.

      • martinbrock

        I’m thinking of a scenario in which my child needs a very costly surgery, and I’m the adulterous lover of a wealthy man’s wife. This man would like to murder me, but instead, he pays me to commit suicide. I accept the offer to pay for my child’s surgery, and the man understands my reason.

        Of course, this wealthy man could pay for my child’s surgery without my suicide, but he will not. Any number of covenant communities would outlaw this behavior somehow, but outlawing it could deny my child the surgery.

        If the surgery is so costly that the community cannot entitle every child to it, then this bargain could be the only chance for my child specifically to have the surgery. Still, I expect many communities to require wealthy people generally to pay for many surgeries of this kind while outlawing the bargain.

        • Theresa Klein

          How is this different from accepting a highly paying, yet dangerous job to pay for the surgery, like say, human cannonball? Let’s say a job where the certainty of death is only 80% instead of 100%? At what percentage probability of death does this contract become allowable?

          • martinbrock

            The difference is the motive of the wealthy man. People don’t object to the risk I take for my child. They object to the wealthy man’s exploitation of my need. I am not wrong to accept his offer of payment for my suicide. He is wrong to offer.

          • urstoff

            You’ll have to have a more articulated definition of “exploitation” (and why exploitation is morally wrong) for that argument to go through. It seems common for anti-market arguments to rely on some fuzzy, intuitive notion of exploitation. In this case, if you value the life of your child more than your own (plausible), and this is the only way to save the life of your child, then however distasteful we might find it, it seems immoral to prevent the transaction.

          • martinbrock

            I haven’t said anything about exploitation be morally wrong.

            The first definition returned by Google is “make full use of and derive benefit from (a resource).” I need money to pay for my child’s surgery. The wealthy man wants me dead, so he makes use of his money by paying me to commit suicide. If he paid me to paint his house, I would also say that he exploits my labor to paint his house. If I cut a tree in my back yard to burn as firewood, I am exploiting the tree.

            Permitting the transaction is not the only possible means of financing my child’s surgery. A community already enforces the wealthy man’s property rights. It could also enforce an obligation to finance these surgeries without my suicide. My own child might not benefit in this scenario, if financing all of these surgeries is not economically feasible, but another child receiving the same benefit is equivalent in a utilitarian sense, all else being equal.

          • urstoff

            What would the purpose of such a law be, then? I’m not seeing what specific argument you are making against such transactions.

          • martinbrock

            The wealthy man could pay someone else with a child needing this surgery to kill me, but paying someone other than me to kill me is illegal, so this scenario doesn’t call Jason’s thesis into question.

            Outlawing paying me to kill myself imposes a common, normative assumption that paying someone to kill anyone is immoral. You and I might conclude, reasoning from a principle of self-ownership, that paying me to kill myself is an exception to the general rule, but many people don’t reach this conclusion.

          • urstoff

            That’s not an argument against the transaction mentioned given that you’re ignoring the premise that the transaction is the only way to save the life of the child. Maybe forcing the wealthy man to do it would be better, but that doesn’t speak to the immorality of the transaction itself (which is Jason’s ultimate target, although that may not cover this case, depending on whether you think “killing yourself” is a service you perform for free).

            The general question is why something which is considered morally acceptable when done for free is not acceptable when done for money. Obviously, if suicide is not considered morally acceptable, then this scenario is not something that falls within the argument. What Jason (and others) want to see answered is why making something a transaction suddenly turns it into something morally unacceptable when it was a morally acceptable action when not in the context of a transaction.

          • martinbrock

            I don’t ignore the premise. I explicitly state it myself from the outset.

            No one says that lightening is immoral when it kills a man. We don’t say that a man eating lion is immoral, even if we kill the lion thereafter. We don’t say that a man killing another man is immoral if the killing is accidental. We say that a man killing another man is immoral because he chose to kill the man for nefarious reasons. Guilt in a murder trial is all about motive. The death of the victim is necessary but definitely not sufficient.

            Killing oneself often is illegal, but I believe it shouldn’t be, so I’m assuming here that it isn’t. If suicide is legal, I suppose most people are killing themselves without being paid.

            I consider suicide morally acceptable. I likely advise you against if you ask my advice, but in many circumstances, suicide seems a very rational choice to me, so I wouldn’t outlaw it. Outlawing suicide, as a general proposition, seems highly immoral to me. On the other hand, outlawing the encouragement of suicide makes more sense to me, and paying someone to commit suicide certainly qualifies as encouragement.

  • Jerome Bigge

    Ever so often I see a “blood drive” urging people to donate because of threatened shortages. However if people were paid for donating blood, the supply would be far greater. Why not pay people to donate? And why should the government have a role in this? I realize that today governments believe that they “own” you, just as did the Pharaohs in Egypt 4,000 years ago. Whenever someone “owns” someone else, that is “slavery” pure and simple…

    • Joshua Holmes

      One of the underlying assumptions of economics (Austrian or mainstream) is that more people will donate blood if you pay a nickel for a donation than if you pay nothing. But research has shown that people treat financial transactions and moral obligations differently. (Perhaps they shouldn’t, but they do.) If you start paying a nickel for blood donations, economics tells you to expect a marginal increase in donations. But it’s much more likely that blood donations would plummet, because blood donation is now a financial transaction, not a moral obligation, and a nickel is too low a price for a pint of blood. Moreover, since blood donations would now be financial transactions, companies would be much less likely to allow their workers to skip work time to donate.

      Hence, paying for blood would only increase the supply if the payment is high enough to cover the conversion of the donation from moral obligation to financial transaction. This is likely to be a significant burden on the Red Cross and require significant additional funds. It would probably be a bad idea for the Red Cross to pay for blood.

      (Of course, this is different from whether the state should ban it.)

      • urstoff

        People get paid to donate plasma. Is plasma just more valuable than blood?

        • Joshua Holmes

          Good question! I don’t know, but it’s worth looking into.

      • Theresa Klein

        Do the hospitals charge for the blood? I can’t see why they shouldn’t or wouldn’t. We pay for everything else, why not ask people to pay for the blood? If there are shortages, why isn’t there a for-profit supply chain for blood running in parallel with the red cross?

      • JoshInca

        But research has shown that people treat financial transactions and moral obligations differently.

        1st: I don’t know of anyone that considers donating blood to be a moral obligation.

        2nd: This is a false dichotomy to begin with. In a voluntary exchange, one party accepting the exchange creates a moral obligation for the other party to fulfill their end of the exchange. Every non sociopath would agree that paying for a good or service obligates the other party to deliver that good or service, and vice versa. Claiming that such obligation is somehow less valid than one absent an exchange is a type of moralistic fallacy, that reveals the anti-market bias of the person making the claim.

  • King Goat

    Actually, I’d bet that many anti-commodification people would happily ban football.

    Of course, they’d ban the bet as well.

  • Well, that debate devolved quickly. Barber can’t trouble himself to write a real response, and what happened to Kuttner?

    • Jason Brennan

      He had to drop out because of outside issues.

      • Rob Gressis

        Too bad you couldn’t have had Satz and Sandel. I think they would have at least understood what philosophical argument is.

        • urstoff

          Satz, at least. Sandel seems consistently outclassed when he has to discuss his positions with philosophers.