Last semester I organized a student Reading Group at The College of New Jersey on Jason Brennan’s and Peter Jaworski’s excellent Markets Without Limits. Not surprisingly, this volume generated a lot of lively discussion, and quite a few comments and objections. I’ve distilled these into this set of five questions, and Jason and Peter have been kind enough to agree to respond to them here. So, watch this space!
In addition to thanking Jason and Peter for their responses, I’d like to thank the students in the Reading Group for the lively yet civil discussions… and bizarre unwillingness to eat cannolis. So, thank you, John DeRosa, Kimberly Feldman, Christopher Ferrante, Somnath Ganape, Eashwayne Haughton, Jennifer Le, Nick Macri, Jennifer Pasternack, Steven Rodriguez, Theresa Vitovitch, and Sean Wira!
1.The question I would like to ask Brennan and Jaworski is the same one I raised during one of our first discussions. The authors make the argument that it would be ethically feasible to establish a market in votes, I believe, provided that all voters behaved in a certain way (namely, voted so as to maximize society’s overall wellbeing and avoided certain corrupt practices). At least ideally, then, a market in votes is feasible. However, libertarians often criticize socialists for claiming that socialism would work if human nature could be altered (made more altruistic). Libertarians rightly argue, it seems, that it is unrealistic to change human nature, attempts to do so have failed miserably, and that one of the biggest flaws of socialism is that so often it ignores basic human tendencies and their consequences for any centralized system (acting in rational self-interest and all that follows from that). Maybe socialism could work, ideally, then, but it is not useful in the real world. Indeed, Brennan and Jaworski assert in other parts of the book that markets are desirable precisely in that they can improve real world situations because they take human nature into account. Might their argument for the market in votes be criticized along the same lines that they implicitly criticize socialism? Sure, it might have merit ideally, if we could alter human nature/common human behaviors, but we probably can’t alter these behaviors, and therefore, how is the market in votes valuable? Like socialism, it seems, it cannot help us in the real world or even in a world towards which we can move. Further, it seems inconsistent to advance this ideal argument and then criticize non-market systems for being unfeasible in the real world.
2. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading through Markets Without Limits and analyzing the virtues that coincide with financial value and the ethics of trading goods and services. I find the text to be incredibly detailed and that it argues specific claims which are easy to follow and understand. Throughout my reading, I came across several points which I would like further elaboration on. I do not disagree with all of these statements but feel as though certain claims would benefit from additional explanations.
My first question lies within Chapter 2, specifically the phrase “if you may do it for free, then you may do it for money.” I fully agree with the justification that if it is inherently wrong for an individual to possess the item, then it is inherently wrong for an individual to sell the item. However, I do not understand the role of the emotional desire to give something away when analyzing monetary value. A person can defend that the satisfaction and pleasure of donating is sufficient payment. If this position is accepted, would emotional gratification have a monetary equivalent? What would be the system for relating the level of happiness to a specific cost?
A second claim which I took note of is in “A Note on the Meaning of Prices,” specifically pages 57-59. I find the use of utility as a practical and realistic concept that allows for valuation outside of the monetary perspective. Ranking utility is also a useful in applying the value that one person perceives the object has. My issue lies with the comparison of Bach’s brilliance to Darwin’s brilliance. Both subjects theoretically consist of the same object: mental brilliance. It is logical to state that comparing monetary and sentimental value is unreasonable, as these are two independent valuing systems. For this reason, we should be able to compare or rank the significance of general brilliance, regardless of its application to science or art. Perhaps it can be concluded that mental distinction is not worth valuing if there is no clear scale or ranking mechanism. Under this theory, only some forms of valuation would be relevant according to their ability to be applied to similar objects. For example, comparing the sentimental value that I hold towards an object and the sentimental value that another person holds to the same object would provide no information as we interpret the worth of our feelings differently.
Essentially, my concerns regard the human aspect of emotions and personal application of value.
3. If we take Singer’s “Drowning Child” scenario and apply the principle, “If you can do it for free, then you can do it for money” Brennan and Jaworski’s argument seems to encounter a number of problems. Firstly, in this case there seems to be a clear moral obligation for a nearby able-bodied person to do something to prevent the child from drowning and it would be problematic if that person tried to sell that obligation; that is, it seems morally problematic for the person to first pause and demand that he be paid by check before proceeding to help the drowning child. Therefore, it seems that in cases where people are morally obligated to perform an action in a time-sensitive situation such as Singer’s well-known scenario, something that would ordinarily be permissible to do for free becomes morally wrong to do for money.
4. A question about markets in votes:
Low income individuals will usually vote for candidates who pledge to improve the poor’s condition, but the politician’s capacity to actually do this is weak, especially in the morass of congress. A wealthy individual, who wants to vote for a politician that will advance his interests (tax breaks, certain trade policies), can swoop in and buy the vote of the low-income individual. The poor will probably accept the bribe because while a politician who champions the poor’s cause is preferable, a large cash bribe will more immediately assuage the low-income individual’s condition.
MWL may claim that the rich who pay the poor to vote for a candidate with policies contrary to their needs is simply a contingent of a certain market. However, MWL’s thesis is that if something can be given for free (AKA a vote) it can also be purchased. Their thesis hinges on the ability to create a market without the contingency through regulation. In the case of a market for votes, I cannot see a way to regulate this contingency and therefore remove it from the market. We cannot prosecute the rich for persuading the poor to vote contrary to their interests because we cannot truly know if the rich believed the candidate would help the poor’s we cannot prosecute insincerity.
5. My criticism of MWL is the following:
While I understand that MWL was written with the intent to “criticize the critics” (Satz, Grant, Sandel, etc) my curiosity lays with the question of how their own criticism and defense can be offered up to the layman. While MWL offers some suitable defenses and fortifications from anti-market theorists, my question is to what extent do they see this affecting and swaying the average individual towards more open markets? While this debate has obvious piratical and “real” merit with the commodification of kidneys, how do they see it affecting that debate in “real” measures? Do Brennan and Jawkorski feel what they’ve proposed is enough to only fend off anti-market theorists in an academic setting or do they see their work as having enough power to sway both the public and the individual towards moving towards a more open market stance on such particular and “living” topics?