Book/Article Reviews, Academic Philosophy

Comments on, and Criticisms of, Brennan and Jaworski’s Markets Without Limits… from The College of New Jersey!

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?










Published on:
Author: James Taylor
  • Jason Brennan

    Thanks, James, to you and your students. Here are my responses. (I haven’t consulted with Peter, who may disagree.)

    1. We agree with the point here–indeed, we say it ourselves in the book–that it’s unlikely that any robust and large vote market would be a good kind. But our point is more limited. Most people think it’s inherently wrong to buy and sell votes. We, in contrast, argue that whether individual instances of vote buying or selling is permissible depends on *how* the person ends up voting. So long as the person ends up voting in a way compatible with my Ethics of Voting, buying and selling is fine, whereas if the person violates the Ethics of Voting, it’s wrong, even if the person did it for free.

    The cases where this can happen are not far-fetched and do not require a radical change in human nature. For instance, Peter could pay me to vote my conscience rather than stay home. Or Peter could could pay me to vote for Clinton rather than a third party candidate.

    2. Not sure what you’re getting at in the second paragraph. Can you elaborate?

    As for the second part, utility theory works even if we accept everything you say there. The Morgenstern-Von Neumann point is that, pace Anderson, it’s possible to construct a cardinal, not just an ordinal, utility scale for each rational person, so long as that person cares at all about money. But you and I could have radically different cardinal utility scales. Now, the market price that emerges from a bunch of people with different utility scales might not correspond to any individuals’ particular cardinal scale, but that’s okay, as market prices are only meant to tell us what the marginal buyer or seller is willing to trade.

    3. See our recently published paper “I”ll Pay You Ten Bucks Not to Murder Me,” in Business Ethics Review Journal. We agree that if you owe it to someone to do something for free, then you may not threaten not to do it unless you get paid. But you can still get paid for doing things you ought to do for free. For instance, I can’t say to Peter, “Peter, I’ll kill you unless you give me $10.” But Peter can say to me, “Jason, unlike your president and police, you’re unusually dutiful in avoiding murdering innocent people. As a reward for your good behavior, here’s $10.” So the thesis stands.

    4. Again, keep distinct two different questions. One question: Should there be a legal voting market, and what regulations should it have? Second question: Are there ever individual cases in which it is morally permissible to buy and sell votes? All we’re arguing is that the answer to the second question is yes. It might well be that, for the very reasons you state, the answer to the first question is no. Perhaps governments should make vote selling illegal precisely because doing so is necessary to prevent certain forms of malgovernance. (Is that a word? Well, it is now, darn it.) But, even if vote selling is rightly made illegal, it might be that individual cases of vote selling are morally permissible. For instance, if Peter pays me to vote my conscience, or to vote in accordance with my 2011 book The Ethics of Voting, then we’ve both acted in permissible ways, even if vote selling is illegal. (That X is illegal doesn’t suffice to show it’s wrong, of course.)

    5. Good question. For what it’s worth, we’ve each given talks on this a bunch of times, probably a total of about 30 times to about 3000 people. People usually come in skeptical but leave either on our side or much closer to it.

    Part of what we’re doing here is saying to skeptical readers, “You probably think these markets are bad. Here are 45 or so arguments on behalf of your gut feelings. But none of these arguments work. Now, here are a few general challenges to your gut feelings.” Hopefully what happens is that readers realize their gut feelings are not to be trusted, and these should use their brains and hearts instead.

  • KevinDC

    I just wanted to offer a second response question number three, as I think it misapplies Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment.

    Peter Singer asks us to imagine a child drowning in a shallow pool. We can save the child easily, without any real risk to our own life and well being, but wading in to do so would ruin our new and expensive shoes. Almost all of us have the intuition that you still have an obligation in this case to save the child’s life even if imposes this cost on you.

    This sort of situation isn’t applicable to the cases described in MWL. We have two different categories of behavior here. MWL addresses things we may permissibly do for free. Singer’s thought experiment highlights things we have an obligation to do even at personal cost. I would agree with the statement “if you are obligated to do something even at personal cost, you may not insist on payment for it,” but that doesn’t touch the thesis “if you may permissibly do it for free you may do it for money.” This is a slightly different response than the one Brennan offered here. Brennan points out that you cannot rightfully demand payment in exchange for refraining from wrongful acts. But you also may not demand payment as a condition for fulfilling positive obligations.

    A different example: parents own their children a duty of care, even though fulfilling this duty is costly. You may not rightfully insist on being paid in order to carry out this obligation. On this, I believe Brennan and the questioner would agree. But this doesn’t tell us anything about the thesis of MWL. There is an important moral distinction between things you may permissibly do for free, and things you are obligated to do at (some) personal cost. We can’t use intuitions about one to draw conclusions about the other.

  • Dr. Jaws

    Thanks to you and your students, James. This is the second time I’ve gotten a chance to talk about MWoL with your students, and I’ve enjoyed it both times.

    Brennan and I are going to agree a great deal here, so I won’t repeat his points. But let me go ahead and add something in response to each of the questions. I’ll post each response as a separate comment so that it will be easier to criticize my responses in context. Here goes:

    1. This criticism can be broadened beyond the case of voting. Many of our examples in the book depend upon people acting in certain ways, and thinking certain thoughts, in order to get to the conclusion that, in principle, a market in this or that is permissible whenever it’s similarly permissible for someone to give this or that away for free. If so, does our thesis rest in any way on the hope or assumption that we can alter human nature?

    The answer is “no, I don’t think it does.”

    Notice that when we are talking about ethics in general, we offer conditions and criteria for an act to count as “good” or “bad.” Specifying those conditions does not mean that we think human nature is malleable, we’re just offering criteria for purposes of categorization. We categorize an act as “good” if the agent did P with intention x, motivation y, and so on. Our book says that if that’s how we’re going to categorize an act, then notice that if we hold all of the relevant criteria constant (doing P with intention x, motivation y, and so on), and add “plus money changed hands” the “plus money changed hands” part does nothing to whether the act belongs in the morally “good” or “bad” category.

    Markets without Limits is about this categorization question. With a few exceptions (like markets in kidneys), we’re not offering our book as a book of advice for purposes of changing social policy. We’re laying the groundwork for that book by trying to eliminate *in principle* objections to markets.

    A different book might give policy advice, but here (as Jason points out) the criteria are going to be different, and considerations like what people will in fact do given a certain institutional arrangement will play a large role in which institutions we ought to recommend.

  • Dr. Jaws

    2. Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the book. I’ll just say “what Brennan said!” with respect to the second part of your question. Here’s my answer to the first part:

    “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?”

    I’m going to have to guess a little as to your precise meaning here. Here’s how I understand your questions:

    Sometimes, when I give something away for free, I get a reward in the form of pleasure or happiness or joy or some other sort of emotional satisfaction. It’s plausible to say that, in many cases, that emotional satisfaction is more than enough to “pay” for the thing I’ve given away. If so, is there a way to reduce the emotional satisfaction to some monetary sum or figure? How would one do that?

    My answer is that I’m not too sure about this. I think people might try to find the point at which you are indifferent between some amount of money and that emotional satisfaction which still gets you to do the thing in question. But even if we found that point, it doesn’t follow that we’ve figured out the financial value of the emotional value. That’s all I’ll say about that for now. Maybe you have a different point in mind, in which case I’ll wait for that to offer more.

  • Dr. Jaws

    3. I’m not sure if Brennan and I disagree about this. Perhaps we do. I tend to see this as probably the most interesting and hard-hitting objection to our thesis out there. Let me try to respond a little, while also responding to KevinDC who posted a comment about this as well.

    First, what Brennan says is exactly right. We pay firefighters, police officers, lifeguards, and so on. No one seems to think that there’s anything morally the matter with that. And no one should. So there would be nothing the matter with you getting a reward for doing your duty or fulfilling your obligations.

    But the one-off case is more interesting to me, and I’m not sure how to answer it exactly. To clarify the objection, the claim is that it is obligatory for me to save the child, from which it follows that it is permissible for me to save the child. That’s the necessary step to see that KevinDC’s answer on our behalf won’t do. If something is obligatory, it is permissible.

    Couple that with the claim that markets are, of necessity, conditional, and you get a forceful objection. A market in x is an arrangement where you’ll get x *on the condition that someone pays you for x* (or that they give you y in order to get x, if it’s bartering). If you don’t pay, you don’t get x.

    But when I’m obligated to x, I can’t make it conditional on you paying me, or offering me anything at all in return. I can’t build conditions into it at all.

    One way out of this is to adjust the thesis like this: “If it is permissible, but not obligatory, for you to do something for free, then you can do it for money.”

    That’s all I’ll say at the moment.

  • Dr. Jaws

    4. I’m just going to hitch my wagon to the Brennan caboose here (or whatever the train parts are called). What he said!

  • Dr. Jaws

    5. I agree with J, this is a great question.

    I don’t think the book is going to have much sway amongst lay folk, although there will be exceptions. It was written as part of a dialogue with the Anderson’s, Satz’s, Sandel’s, Radin’s, and so on, of the world — it was addressed to these folks. However, the book is not written in an especially technical way, and we did our best to make it as broadly accessible as possible. We even tried to be funny here and there.

    My experience in taking the MWoL show on the road is identical to Brennan’s: I’ve now given the talk about two dozen times to somewhat diverse audiences — from people attending non-academic conferences, to undergraduates, to graduate students, in classrooms, and in other places. In each case, the feedback I’ve gotten was positive (in the sense of changing people’s minds). This is so both when people talk to me about it after the talk, as well as (and more importantly) with the anonymous feedback I’ve gotten.

    I will add that I feel particularly strongly about the use of economic incentives for motivating live kidney donations, blood donations, bone marrow donations, and blood plasma donations. So I am trying to translate some of the academic things I’ve written with Jason into articles for popular outlets, and in other venues, to try to get this to change as soon as possible. There are far too many people who needlessly die, and needlessly suffer for want of a kidney or bone marrow. That can be fixed quickly. And it should be.

    • James Taylor

      I agree completely on the need for economic incentives for live kidney donations, as well as for all other body parts. (Blood, bone marrow, and plasma can already legally be bought and sold in the US.) I’ve been arguing the case for the past decade since Stakes and Kidneys came out, as has Mark Cherry, Ben Hippen, and Sally Satel, and it seems that things are slowly–too slowly–going our way. You can buy Stakes and Kidneys here–everyone needs several copies! 🙂