Libertarianism, Academic Philosophy

Are there any (real) goods that you can’t simply buy?

Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski have recently published a very nice set of responses to my Commentary in Business Ethics Journal Review on their recent book Markets Without Limits.

One of the arguments that I offered in my Commentary was based on the claim that you couldn’t buy a Nobel Prize, since Nobel Prizes must be distributed on the basis of merit. In response, Brennan and Jaworski give the example of  a World Ethics Prize that is given out each year by the Order of the Sisters of the Divine Rose to the person who most deserves moral praise. But there’s a catch: To receive the Prize one must donate $100,ooo to a charity of one’s choice. If this isn’t donated by the potential Prizewinner the Prize just isn’t awarded that year. Since the Prize is conditional on payment, we might say that the Prize has been bought–but is nonetheless still a prize.

I see the force behind this example, and I’m sympathetic to it. But I’m not (yet) convinced that we’d say that someone had bought the Prize, as one might buy a chunk of cheddar. This is because one might hold that one only “buys” a good when the monetary payment for it is sufficient on its own for one to acquire the good in question.  To move myself more towards Jason’s and Peter’s position I’ve been trying to think of goods in the real world that people can clearly and unquestionably buy, but whose purchase is conditional upon the buyers meeting certain criteria before being able to buy the good in question. Any suggestions here–from anyone!–would be very welcome!

  • dfjdejulio

    It’s not exactly the same thing, but I’m reminded of the various tchotchkes handed out as part of PBS pledge drives. You’d “donate” money and be given some token (like a tote bag or mug), but the value of the token was *considerably* less than the size of the donation (which was the point). In at least some cases, those tokens were not available for general purchase.

    Hm, what about voting receipts maybe? If I vote, and get a slip of paper, and a local business is giving out discounts to people who show them proof of voting, and someone approaches me to purchase my receipt so they can take advantage of those offers…

    Another example might be “clubs” that only serve members. It’s my understanding that in some cases clubs are used to get around certain regulations on tobacco or alcohol.

  • James Oswald

    Adoption, both pet and human. There are some dangerous items, such as explosives, that buyers must either prove need, or do a safety course to get. Organs have an extensive non-monetary cost associated with them.

  • Hugh MacIntyre

    It may not fit because it is not a universal condition for all dog purchases, but many dog breeders set conditions on being able to purchase a dog from them. This could include a screening process to weed out people who may be poorly suited to own dogs but it could also be a straight forward condition that you must nutter the dog.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Driver’s license. And if you think this is state extortion rather than a good, auto insurance. Life insurance too.

    And the last I looked libertarians by and large were outraged that the ability of health insurance companies to insist on a prerequisite other than money (namely, evidence of good health) is being legally impaired. But if you want to say this is just bargaining on their part, consider the purchase of religious services, such as a Jewish circumcision or a Roman Catholic wedding.

    But I strongly suspect the tacit position is that goods are goods because of their monetary value. Since these religious services don’t have a consistent monetary value set by an impersonal market, they can’t be defined as goods. It would seem to be simplify the discussion if one were upfront about what a good is, though.

  • Greg Diderich