Some Commentary on the Semiotics of Markets

At Business Ethics Review Journal, Dan Layman has a critique of “Markets without Symbolic Limits”. Abstract:

Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski reject expressive objections to markets on the grounds that (1) market symbolism is culturally contingent, and (2) contingent cultural symbols are less important than the benefits markets offer. I grant (1) and (2), but I deny that these points suffice as grounds to dismiss expressive critiques of markets. For many plausible expressive critiques of markets are not symbolic critiques at all. Rather, they are critiques grounded in the idea that some market transactions embody morally inappropriate normative stances toward the goods or services on offer.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Peter and I don’t think the critique is successful, in part because we don’t think Layman successfully shows there’s a real difference between “embodying morally inappropriate stances” and symbolic objections. A response paper is forthcoming.

Graham Peterson also sent me this comment:


Do Markets Make People Selfish?

Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworksi have just published a clever new article in Ethics called “Markets without Symbolic Limits,” in which they throw some new light on the repugnant markets literature (think Al Roth, Michael Sandel, etc.).  The repugnant markets literature asks why people are a-OK with markets in some things (PlayStations), but not others (kidneys).

Brennan and Jaworski’s addition is clever because it goes beyond the usual arguments recommending markets, which are materialist, and come from the guys in the economics and philosophy departments, and addresses market critics on their own English department turf, in symbolic terms.

Theirs is an extremely important, and extremely different, tactic for proponents of markets. Libertarians, conservatives, moderate liberals, and anyone else who believes in supply and demand cannot just keep scratching their heads when people don’t get it, or concluding that their view is superior and sophisticated.

Brennan and Jaworksi have landed on the first principle of persuasion — if your audience speaks symbolism, you’re not going to change ’em speaking materialism.

The bulk of the article reviews empirical literature in anthropology and sociology, literature that shows just how contextually dependent the meaning of money is.  In some cultures, giving cash is a higher honor and more intimate than hand-knit mittens.  They conclude that since there is nothing inherent in money, that attaches any particular positive or negative significance to it (contra Freud and Simmel on “filthy lucre”), we ought to think about how money has been constructed in the West.

If we can convince people there are sound empirical and moral reasons to change the meanings we attach to money and markets, let’s get right to it!  It is a really brilliant argument.  I’d love to see more libertarians and economists engaging the other side like this.

But I want to contend with the paper a bit.  They start with some definitional work, reviewing the arguments against markets.  There are material arguments against markets, like polluted river externalities or the inefficiencies that might result in a market for organs.  These are traditional, materialist, economic, political, complaints.  On the other hand, they want to separate out semiotic complaints about markets — complaints that pose markets themselves as a social force that degrades and debases objects.

I don’t see a difference.  Every one of the not-semiotic complaints that Brennan and Jaworski list derives in what is at bottom a semiotic concern, that markets run on and encourage selfishness.  People’s intuition, for better or worse, is that:

  1. Exploitation is the result of greed.
  2. Misallocation results from bosses who don’t care about employees, or because capitalists aren’t charitable.
  3. Selling people things that are bad for them is a result of carelessness and greed (the paternalistic complaint).
  4. Harmful externalities result from careless people not considering the knock-on effects of their actions.
  5. The selfishness of markets correlates to and probably generates other vices, like vanity or sloth or envy.

So, in my view, the entire enterprise of repugnant market research can be reduced to the semiotic question: “why do the lion’s share of cultures believe that markets and money taint sacred objects with the profanity of selfishness?”  Brennan and Jaworski exhort us to do “more work . . . on the psychology underlying semiotic objections to markets.”

I’ll try.

Our past was unimaginablyviolent relative to today.  If you think Republicans and Democrats are prone to think the other team are a bunch of sociopaths, you can only imagine what the mentality was when people routinely massacred one another’s tribes at dawn.  So, we’re understandably prone to think outgroups are selfish people who lack our ethics of reciprocity and community solidarity.  We think out groups are evil.  Trading partners by definition come from out groups.  Ergot, we associate markets–and its material totem, money–with selfishness.  By extension, we usually relegate low status people to dealing with outgroups, to doing our trading and banking.  In European history, those people were Jewish.

Now, that conflation of outgroups with nasty selfishness is not entirely irrational.  When positive sum trade between my ingroup and your outgroup breaks down, we probably will get nasty and hurt one another.  So people are right to sense the tension and conflict in negotiation, in the marketplace.  Economists mostly ignore that process.  Deals don’t break down in the economics textbook.  Best friends don’t sue each other and tank a successful business partnership, because rational agents recognize that trades are mutually beneficial.

If we recognize that people generally associate markets with greed, and maybe understandably associate greed with a lot of bad behavior, we can probably be more persuasive in enjoining people to experiment with markets.  That will mean telling a story where private insurers and for profit hospitals aren’t callous, suspender wearing fat cats.  It will mean telling a story where people running black markets in organs and babies in third world countries actually do care about the customers they are serving.  And so on, with the bankers, with the bosses, with the drug dealers, with the children’s toys manufacturers.

Protesting and beating people over the head with supply and demand diagrams, calling their ideas “economic fallacies,” probably isn’t going to do the trick.

In the final section of Markets without Limits, Jaworski and I do some speculation about the psychology underlying anti-commodification attitudes. People have various objections about how markets in this and that would cause certain bad effects. E.g., they might say that they oppose kidney markets because they think they would prevent poor people from getting kidney markets. Now, suppose you ask them, “You think the market causes bad thing X. Suppose you had good empirical evidence that it doesn’t cause X. Would you be fine with the market then?” About half of people say yes. And about half say no. You can quickly get people to be morally dumbfounded–they’re convinced markets in this or that are evil, but they aren’t sure why. Following some ideas from Hayek and others, Jaworski and I speculate that it’s a combination of disgust and that our moral psychology wasn’t “designed” for extended and indirect forms of cooperation.

What do you think?



Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Daniel Layman

    Thanks for posting about my paper, Jason. I’m looking forward to a good discussion over at BEJR (or here, as the case may be) once your and Peter’s reply comes out.

  • I agree that disgust/sanctity issues play a key role in anti-commodification attitudes, but I’m not sure that our moral psychology not being “‘designed’ for extended and indirect forms of cooperation” is really a major factor.

    My own take: Assume a society in which (due to disgust or whatever) it’s a violation of social norms to engage in monetary transactions around some activity. Assuming such transactions can be profitable, there will no doubt be a few people willing to engage in them, but almost by definition they will be people willing to violate social norms. And psychology being what it is, people willing to regularly violate norms in one area will likely be willing to do so in other ways as well—hence they would likely be less concerned about socially-unacceptable negative externalities, or about cheating/harming the people they transact with. (And they’d be more free to do the latter, since those they transact with can’t rely on social norms or legal institutions to protect their interests.) The result is a halo effect that causes the activity in question to be characterized as a “dirty business” that only disreputable people engage in, reinforcing whatever disgust/sanctity factors kicked off the dynamic in the first place.

    “Detoxifying” monetary transactions around this activity would then require a number of things to happen. Clearly bringing such transactions into the overall official legal/economic framework is one part of this: enforcing contracts, providing regulations, taxing the activity, etc. But prior (or parallel) to that the social norms themselves have to change, or at least bend a bit. There I suspect two key factors are explicitly linking the activity to some separate worthwhile social goal that’s relatively unconnected to the (still) norm-violating activity itself, and (perhaps more important) having “respectable people” (read: socioeconomic elites) take over the activity from those who previously engaged in it.

    Gambling (excuse me, “gaming”) is a good example of this: In my state (Maryland) legalization of casino games was (like state-supported lotteries) explicitly linked to support of public education—it wasn’t sold on the basis that gambling itself was any sort of socially-useful or -approved activity. And of course the people authorized to run casinos aren’t from the streets of Baltimore but rather from the ranks of corporate America.

    • Theresa Klein

      Another strategy would be to work towards a general lessening of disgust reactions in society. People who are less easily disgusted are going to be generally more tolerant of all sorts of activities that were formerly considered disgusting, commerce included.
      There is some evidence that some people are more easily disgusted than others and that this mechanism is triggered at some point in childhood, such as due to experiencing food bourne illnesses and the like.

      • Yes, this is a good point. I’ve seen it hypothesized that the general improvements in sanitation and control of infectious diseases over the past few centuries are causal factors in the increase of social tolerance, more positive attitudes toward out-groups, etc., over the same time period.

  • j r

    Every one of the not-semiotic complaints that Brennan and Jaworski list derives in what is at bottom a semiotic concern, that markets run on and encourage selfishness.

    Blaming markets for encouraging selfishness is a bit like blaming the internal combustion engine for killing the dinosaurs; it gets the causality wrong.

    Peterson makes some good points about moral intuitions and associations of market activities with the outgroup. There is a deeper problem, though, in attempting to win these debates through better storytelling. The people who tell stories for a living just don’t tend to understand the world of markets very well and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. Further, for many of these folks, whether they be anti-capitalist Hollywood screenwriters or sociology professors or populist politicians, they’re whole identity is tied up in purposefully mischaracterizing markets precisely because what they are selling tends not to be valued very highly on properly functioning free markets.

    • Sean II

      Great comment. Only let me add this:

      It’s worth asking whether the storyteller mentality is bred or born. In keeping with my usual emphasis, I think we should of course examine the latter possibility.

      It certainly passes the (admittedly not very hard) prima facie evo-psych plausibility test: as trade grew in its importance to human affairs, it acquired a kind of parasite: the regulator, the man who having nothing else to contribute in the process, contributes his permission (a trick which only works if you also deny it from time to time).

      Certainly the world looks to contain such people, risk-taking traders on the one hand and largely post-hoc storytellers on the other.

      The puzzling thing is, although the story tellers have rather passionate disgust toward the traders, the traders often fail to muster any reciprocal hatred for the storytellers.

      • j r

        I am skeptical that there is much in the way of innate proclivity for or aversion to markets. Maybe some of this is captured in levels of risk aversion or some other trait, but people’s views on markets tend to be rather malleable.

        That is, people tend to like markets that bring valuations at or above the level that people value themselves. Conversely, when markets value people or their contributions lower than where those people think they ought to be, they tend to default back to innate moral intuitions.

        The cultural anthropology major with six figures in student loan debt is perfectly happy to accept the social cache that comes with her fancy private school degree. She only gets mad when the job market doesn’t respond with the same level of enthusiasm or remuneration. And likewise, that same person who loves complaining about poor people receiving public benefits they don’t deserve is often the first person to defend her own social security and Medicare benefits even though they far outstrip any tax revenue that she previously paid into the system.

        • Sean II

          One problem for both your theory and mine is how to account for this organism:

          Market haters who succeeded in the market, or easily could have.

          G.A. Cohen, to use an example much talked about in these parts, was smart enough and industrious enough to have achieved great status in the market. He could have gone down in history as…shit, I dunno…Britain’s greatest movie producer, and not instead as socialism’s stubbornest holdout.

          Indeed, given what he could have done as a businessman, Cohen paid a heavy price for his disgust. Which is another way of saying: anti-market bias is expensive, and therefore in need of being explained.

          • j r

            Not sure why that is a problem. Like I said, I don’t think that most people hate markets, just specific market outcomes and usually because of valuation reasons. There are other less common reasons, as well though. Sometimes people are really really committed to their moral intuitions.

            There are lots of games that I could play and play very well, but I choose not to because they don’t interest me. Likewise, there are games that I wish I was much better at, but which I play anyway because I like them for any number of esoteric reasons. The problem with most evo psych theories is that they are reductionist. The easiest way to avoid those problems is to admit that human behavior is normally distributed and not the function of any one single mechanism.

          • Sean II

            “I don’t think most people hate markets, just specific market outcomes…”

            I wish you were right of course, but what I see when I look about is the opposite:

            People can bring themselves to tolerate a few markets precisely because they like their outcomes – Apple, Starbucks, etc. – but many of those people (say, maybe 30% in the U.S), including very many smart people, cannot grasp the basic idea of mutually beneficial exchange. The notion of “I value your pencil more than $1, while you value my $1 more than your pencil” is alien to them. Nor indeed will they stand for having the concept explained! No matter how many times they personally gain from trade, no matter how lucidly one explains the process of exchange to them, they continually revert back to thinking of it as game of screwer and screwed. And they do this in very predictable ways. The buyer of labor and the seller of goods are seemingly always the screwer. The seller of labor and the buyer of goods are eternally the screwed.

            Outside the United States, it only gets worse. Compared to most of the people alive on planet earth, Bernie Sanders might as well be an economist of the Austrian School.

          • j r

            We will just have to agree to disagree.

            I suspect that your observations are tainted by a world view in which we here in the states (and really only certain of us) are the only true defenders of markets, and classically liberal values more broadly, and are surrounded by a world of illiberal hordes itching for the chance to get in and tear it all down.

            I spent some time as a beltway libertarian and I left before I ever really got started on that path, mostly because I felt that most people simply aren’t libertarians. That said, I’ve found that most people are happy with markets to the extent that they bring the outcomes they think that they deserve. And a good portion of people’s suspicions is well-founded. Lots of markets have been fixed and/or rigged to the benefit of one group of players.

            My job right now literally involves me going to developing countries and talking about economics. I see a lot of suspicion, but I don’t see much more open hostility towards markets than I do in America. To the contrary, the developing world, and the least developed parts of the developed world, is awash in commerce and much of that is happening in informal sectors away from the prying eyes and clutching hands of bureaucrats.

          • Sean II

            Which continent?

          • Sean II


            3) “the developing world, and the least developed parts of the developed world, is awash in commerce and much of that is happening in informal sectors away from the prying eyes and clutching hands of bureaucrats.”

            You could pay the same tribute to the middle or late Soviet Union. I don’t think it proves anything, except something we already know, which is that living without markets is suicide, so even fairly devout anti-market societies end up cheating to get by.

          • King Goat

            “I suspect that your observations are tainted by a world view in which we
            here in the states (and really only certain of us) are the only true
            defenders of markets, and classically liberal values more broadly, and
            are surrounded by a world of illiberal hordes itching for the chance to
            get in and tear it all down.”

            It doesn’t take long to take this from talking to Sean, does it?

          • Theresa Klein

            jr, and yet the developing world is also awash in leftist politics, which you can see all over Latin America and Africa and India (nevermind China which is technically still ruled by the communist party).
            In other words, in spite of people’s willingness to engage in commerce, the belief that there is something morally wrong with it still persists.

          • j r

            I suggest one minor edit:

            jr, and yet the developing world is also awash in leftist politics…

    • King Goat

      “precisely because what they are selling tends not to be valued very highly on properly functioning free markets.”

      I’m not sure I accept that premise. This reminds me of the work Two Cheers for Capitalism by Irving Kristol. An interesting, perhaps unfortunate, thing about capitalism is that it promotes the buying and selling of a lot of things, including, if people are into it, anti-capitalism. Michael Moore has done quite well in a ‘properly functioning’ market selling that.

  • Regarding the last point, I don’t think it’s disgust, nor do I think it’s that our moral nature isn’t programmed for it.

    Instead, I think it the fact that people tend to adopt a morality that reconciles Moral Rule A with Moral Rules B, C, and D. When confronted for a plausible reason to change Rule A, a person might be willing to do it readily on its own merits. But if it has implications about rules B, C, and D, then we’re no longer trying to convince them about Rule A anymore. Instead, we’re trying to convince them to adopt an entirely new moral system.

    We might be right about their moral system, but it’s important to remember that coming around to organ markets is relatively easy, compared to adopting a whole new moral philosophy. I think it’s this latter thing that people are uncomfortable with.

    • Sean II

      “…is relatively easy, compared to adopting a whole new moral philosophy.”

      True, but you might add the word “deliberately”. People naturally tend to change their moral philosophy as they age. The normal course is to grow more utilitarian and less deontological – a drift which should send folks in the right direction, as far as organ markets are concerned.

      The trick is that most people don’t like to admit any such change is happening. They continue to speak the old language, and if confronted with the observation “I see you’ve relaxed your principles over time” they would angrily deny it. (You can really see this contradiction in parents, who preach the ethics of obligation to their children at night, and then in the morning rush off to do their best impression of Petyr Baelish meets The Office. Funny how they explain both as done for the love of their kids!)

      Point being: some acts come with a bit too much clarity attached. Selling human body parts, severed or attached, just too obviously says “anything can be bought”. The act itself states a principle, a bit too clearly for the taste of most people.

      • I think you’ve pointed out something profound here. People like to discover this kind of wisdom, but they don’t like its being someone else’s idea – especially if it’s someone with whom they ordinarily disagree.

        So the truth goes unnoticed. But I guess that’s why every philosophical discussion must be prefaced with the phrase, “At least, for honest truth-seekers…”

  • I agree. The difference between expression and symbolism that Layman proposes is imaginary, if it is meant to be a critique separate from, or in addition to, a basic normative critique. To make a distinction, Layman argues that embodiment means the outward expression of an action; but then he adopted your definition of symbolism, which is a communicative expression. There is no substantive difference between the two. And if there is some difference between embodiment and symbolism, he must then be folding the expressive critique into the basic normative critiques, meaning that the expressive critique wholly depends on some underlying moral or intrinsic values, which then need to be examined. But if it depends on those values, embodiment itself carries no additional weight.

  • Theresa Klein

    Following some ideas from Hayek and others, Jaworski and I speculate that it’s a combination of disgust and that our moral psychology wasn’t “designed” for extended and indirect forms of cooperation.

    Yes. It’s Haidt’s sanctity/degradation axis and the disgust mechanism.
    I think Peterson does a pretty good job pointing out how long-distance trade is associated with outgroups and hence has been relegated to low-status people (i.e. Jews). But that’s not the whole picture. Contact with outgroups isn’t just disgusting because they are outgroups, it’s probably actually a source of real disease vectors. Contact with out groups exposes you to more pathogens. The bubonic plague after all spread along trade routes in Europe in the 13th century.
    I wonder how that affected European social psychology and norms about trade?
    In addition currency physically changes hands a lot, thus we get phases like “fithy lucre” and “dirty money”. And people who handled a lot of currency hence would likely be exposed to more pathogens – i.e. tax collectors, and people engaged in foreign trade. Which would make it likely that people who associated with those people would be exposed to more pathogens, and so forth.
    If you add it up it’s probably fair to say that humans evolved and developed our moral psychology in an environment in which foreign trade and currency were always associated with the spread of disease.

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