Book/Article Reviews

First Reply to Barber at Cato Unbound

“Even if Libertarianism is Stupid, We’re Still Right.”


After reading Benjamin Barber’s careful, fair, charitable, and rigorous essay, I realized Barber is right. Market fundamentalism and libertarianism are cuckoo. We ought to replace our apparent “monolithic monism” with, I suppose, polylithic pluralism. And I’d better start taking seriously the dialectical essence of politics. To that end, I’ve asked Oxford University Press to retract my book Libertarianism, and for Princeton University Press to retract The Ethics of Voting and the forthcoming Against Politics (a book that Barber would truly hate).

The thing is, even if Barber were right about all this – that market fundamentalism is dumb and bad, that markets need the state to be free, that social democracy is the best system, that the public sector is vital for ensuring our freedom and equality, or whatnot – it has no bearing on our argument in Markets without Limits.

The debate about commodification (which Barber’s book Consumed is to some degree about) is not a debate about whether markets should be free, whether libertarianism is true, or whether we need strong democratic oversight and control over the market. Is instead a debate about what sorts of things may properly be for sale. The thesis of Markets without Limits is not that we ought to have free markets in everything, democracy and justice be damned. It’s instead that anything you may do for free, you may permissibly do for money. There are limits to how we sell, but not what we sell, except the trivial and boring limit that you shouldn’t sell some things you shouldn’t have or do, period.

In a bit we’ll post a critique of Ben Barber’s Consumed. He didn’t read our book, but I read his, and I’ve got somethings to say about proper social scientific methods.

Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Ivan

    “The debate about commodification (which Barber’s book Consumed is to some degree about) is not a debate about whether markets should be free, whether libertarianism is true, or whether we need strong democratic oversight and control over the market. Is instead a debate about what sorts of things may properly be for sale.”

    I confess I haven’t read your book yet, but this is a bit worrying sign for me. Does this mean that what you want to say to leftists is approximatelly: “as long as you accept the formal legalization of selling organs, prostitution and whatnot, we are going to accept whatever level of regulation you want, short of formal abolition”. Is this your argument? If not,what would be the constraining principle? Where is the line government cannot cross in regulating?

    Just one illustration of the problem. Italian labour market obviously formally allows commodification of labour services. But, would you call Italian labour market free? Does your theory allow us to make any differential judgements about say American and Italian labour markets? Indeed, if the only thing you have to say is that organ sale or prostitution should be formally free, but subject to unspecified, and conceptually unconstrained government power to regulate, then it may not me such an unbridgeable difference between you and Barber…

    • Jason Brennan

      No, we don’t happen to favor these regulations. But we want them to agree that yes, these things can be for sale, and the real debate is how regulated or free the market in them should be.

      • Ivan

        then it seems to me that you are taking with one hand what you are giving with the other: your main claim is that whatever can be exchanged for free should also be legally exchangeable for money. Now, if you are going to allow regulation of the “market”, i.e. monetary exchange of goods the non-monetary exchange of which you do NOT regulate, then you abolish the symmetry and return to the same inconsistency you criticize in leftists.

        • But there are also regulations about doing things for free. It is not permissible for a woman to give her husband a blowjob in a supermarket (though it sometimes happens – there was a case in London a few days ago).

          • Ivan

            that’s beside the point. You cannot do it in a supermarket, with your wife or with a paid person. If the market is to be morally neutral, as authors argue, then the regulations for monetary and non-monetary versions of the same acts have to be the SAME. If you say that monetary interactions will be allowed but subject to regulations that non-monetary versions face, you are conceding that market is not morally neutral.

          • Not necessarily. Introducing monetary exchange introduces an additional aspect and it seems that there may generally be regulations concerning an additional aspect when it appears; for instance, you should not pay in a foreign currency unless the other person has agreed to that. To say that, if it permissible to do it for free, then it is permissible to do it for money, does not imply that there are no additional regulations when you do it for money. Doing it for money changes the act in some ways; but it does not change it from permissible to impermissible.

          • Ivan

            If the other person does not consent to foreign currency you cannot pay (pay to whom), so there would not be any market transaction even without your regulatory rule, so your example is not good.

            If you have to regulate (translation: restrict the range of possible ways of carrying out) certain activity if it is on the market but NOT if it is outside the market, then market is not morally neutral. As simple as that. The main argument of the book is is that the market does not contribute anything to the moral quality of an action. If that’s the case, than there could not be an independent authority to regulate solely selling of kidneys as opposed to giving them away to friends. If such an authority, however, exists, then an act of selling kidneys DOES change the moral character of transactions with kidneys, just as critics claim.

          • I’ll come back to you with a better example when I can think of one! (I am preoccupied with some other things at the moment.)

    • Theresa Klein

      I think once we can acknowledge that markets are not in themselves immoral we can tackle the question of what sort of regulation is appropriate. Techically speaking one can characterize rules like property rights and contract law as “regulation”. They just happen to be very general broad regulations that govern all forms of exchange. If the discussion is over what sorts of rules are approriate, that’s a fundamentally different, more rational discussion, than whether markets in some things are “just wrong”.

      • Ivan

        my question is not whether certain actions should or should not be regulated in abstracto, but rather – what is the basis for considering DIFFERENT regulations for the SAME acts if they include buying and selling than if they do not? If market by itself cannot make any action immoral (as the authors claim), then what is the basis for the idea that markets should be regulated differently than non-market transactions? If in legal sense you treat these two classes of transactions differently, you are saying that market IS immoral, just as leftists argue.

        Property rights and contract laws are applicable to both monetary and non-monetary transactions, so they cannot be “regulations” we are talking about here..

  • King Goat

    You have to love the sheer obliviousness of his audience Barber displays by coming onto Cato Unbound and trying to win the argument by talismanic denunciations of ‘market fundamentalism.’

  • Jeff R.

    Did he really not read the book? Or are you just surmising that from the lack of substance in his response?