markets without limits – Bleeding Heart Libertarians Free Markets and Social Justice Fri, 19 Jan 2018 15:05:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 markets without limits – Bleeding Heart Libertarians 32 32 22756168 Pay for bone marrow, save lives Sat, 19 Nov 2016 23:09:25 +0000 This past week, I was on a panel for a Senate Hill Briefing entitled “Should compensation for bone marrow donors be legal?” The panel included myself, Robert McNamara (Institute for...

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15036487_10100700323104051_2510168469186508591_nThis past week, I was on a panel for a Senate Hill Briefing entitled “Should compensation for bone marrow donors be legal?” The panel included myself, Robert McNamara (Institute for Justice), Mario Macis (Associate Professor of Economics, Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business), Samuel Hammond (Poverty and Welfare Policy Analyst, Niskanen Center), and Doug Grant (founder and CEO of Hemeos).

The event was co-sponsored by the Niskanen Center and the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics. The Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond released a report entitled “Bone Marrow Mismatch” that same day, wherein he argued that the Department of Health and Human Services should not intervene to prohibit compensation for bone marrow donors (which is currently legal).

My comments were about the ethics of compensating people for their bone marrow. Here is what I said (video of my comments is at the end, if you prefer watching to reading):

Recently, Congressperson Nanci Pelosi said the following:

“We have a little time to save lives. What more important thing does any of us have to do than to stay here and pass a law to save lives? Somebody said to you, you could save 90 lives by passing a bill today, wouldn’t you do that? Or why wouldn’t you do that? Why wouldn’t you do that?”

Here we have an opportunity to save much more than 90 lives. We have the opportunity to save hundreds, if not thousands of lives.

All that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has to do is nothing.

The question is, why wouldn’t they do that?

There is one company, Hemeos, that stands ready to help save more than 90 lives. All they require is the continued legal permission to operate.


So why would HHS not permit companies like this to operate?

I looked at the Department’s arguments in favor of passing a new rule that would prevent companies like Hemeos from saving more than 90 lives.

I also had a look at all of the public submissions to the Department of Health and Human Services when they opened this question for public comment. (Of 527 submissions, only 20 were in favor of the new rule. 507 submissions were opposed.)


The first and most frequent response has to do with wrongful exploitation. The worry is that offering payment for bone marrow donations will unduly incentivize at-risk populations to make a health-related decision that may not be in their own best, long-term health interest.

There is no question that wrongful exploitation is a legitimate worry. If it were true that compensating bone marrow donors were wrongfully exploitative, that would be a significant objection. However, the compensatory model would not be wrongfully exploitative.

Unlike aspiration, apheresis is a non-invasive procedure. While there are risks, the procedure is not dangerous. In most cases, recovery, which is generally minimal or non-debilitating, lasts one week.

In addition, hematopoietic stem cells quickly regenerate. Donors do not permanently “lose” a part of themselves.

Given that the burdens are not significant, they provide no grounds for concern about wrongful exploitation.

There is also no evidence that compensation for bone marrow donations would be low, or that only poor or desperate people would be willing to donate for compensation. For example, Hemeos is offering $2,000 per completed donation. That is a sum that is sufficient to persuade middle- and upper-income individuals to donate, just as they now donate eggs or sperm for compensation.

Finally, donors would not be compensated on the day that they sign up to be placed on the registry. Instead, they are paid only after a match is found, and they complete the donation, which can take a long time, possibly years. Worries about wrongful exploitation are about people making desperate decisions in moments of desperation. A waiting period of months or possibly years gives people an opportunity to reconsider.


The second objection to the compensatory model is that it would promote the view that human beings, their bodies, or subparts thereof, are appropriately viewed as “commodities.”

We should mark a distinction between paying for something, and thinking of that thing as a mere commodity. It is trivially true that anything that is paid for or compensated is a “commodity,” but this is ethically irrelevant. What is ethically relevant is that the compensatory model would promote the view that bone marrow is a “mere commodity,” meriting no more ethical regard than other mere commodities, such as cars or clothing or widgets.

However, there is no evidence that the compensatory model would promote this view.

For example, there is no evidence that compensation for blood or blood plasma donations, nor for sperm and egg donations, has promoted the view that people or their blood, sperm, or eggs are mere commodities.

We also compensate Presidents, Senators, Congresspersons, members of the military, police officers, actors, artists, and so on. Mario and I are compensated as professors, mostly from the tuition our students pay. But there is simply no evidence that a paycheck for our labor promotes the view that we are mere commodities, nor that the services we provide — protection, education, artistic expression, representation, and so on — are regarded as mere commodities.

There is simply no evidence that a compensatory model would promote the view that donors or their bone marrow are mere commodities.


The third, frequently cited, objection to compensating donors for bone marrow donations is that it would take away an opportunity for altruism. Of course altruism is desirable, and we should be careful to preserve and promote altruistic and benevolent motives and actions. But this is an unpersuasive argument.

The compensatory model leaves open the possibility for donors to reject the compensation. It also leaves open the possibility for a parallel non-compensatory model. Some blood drives, for example, are uncompensated, while, in other cases, blood donors are offered compensation. Both operate successfully side by side.

It is also true that compensation and altruism are not mutually exclusive. In many cases, people who are compensated are motivated either simultaneously or primarily by altruistic impulses. This is true of many teachers, of many doctors and nurses, of members of the military, and so on. Blood donors who are compensated are often moved by altruistic motives. There is no reason to think that compensation for bone marrow donations would completely, or even significantly, crowd-out altruism.


None of the three most frequently-cited objections to the compensatory model withstand ethical scrutiny.

This is not my view alone.

39 professional ethicists from across the political spectrum signed on to an open letter addressed to the Department of Health and Human Services presenting the arguments I have offered. They include well-known and well-regarded ethicists like Peter Singer, Gerald Dworkin, and David Schmidtz. The letter is hosted on

In that letter, we also argued that given the ethical importance of avoiding preventable death, the proposed Rule by the Department of Health and Human Services is itself unethical.

When people stand ready, willing, and able to save lives, we need very good reasons to prevent them. In this case, we do not have sufficient reason to prevent them. Hemeos, and companies like Hemeos, would like to save lives. Because we do not have sufficient reason to prevent them, the proposed new rule is not merely “a bad idea,” it is morally wrong.

Passing this new rule is unethical. What is being proposed is morally wrong. We have the opportunity to save more than 90 lives. Why wouldn’t we do that?

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Commodification on Twin Earth Tue, 01 Nov 2016 18:27:33 +0000 I debated Jennifer Roback Morse this past week on the topic of markets in kidneys, sex, and kids, at the University of Texas (Austin). It was co-hosted by the Austin...

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I debated Jennifer Roback Morse this past week on the topic of markets in kidneys, sex, and kids, at the University of Texas (Austin). It was co-hosted by the Austin Institute, and the Texas Economics Association.

Jennifer runs the Ruth Institute, which is an institute in favor of traditional marriage, against the sexual revolution, against surrogacy (paid and unpaid), and so on.

Going into it, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to defend the thesis in my book Markets without Limits, the opponents are typically left-liberals. So they don’t like markets in certain kinds of things because they are wrongfully exploitative, or they fail to symbolically signal equal respect, or they’ll promote inequality, or the poor won’t get as much of the good things, and so on.

But Jennifer is a social conservative. And because there are almost no social conservatives in the academy to speak of, it was a bit difficult for me to try to figure out what she might argue.

Brennan suggested I just do a Twin Earth thought experiment throughout, and see what she has to say about it. So I did.

Here’s video of the debate, and, below, I’m posting the text of my introduction:

Let me tell you a story about a recent trip of mine.

I was on Twin Earth last month.

Twin Earth is just like our regular Earth, with just a few differences. They share all of our moral convictions, but they have many different conventions.

For example, around here, if I were to give you the finger, that would be disrespectful.

But on Twin Earth, they use the middle finger as a respectful greeting. If you want to say “hello” to someone respectfully, you do this.

Don’t wave to them on Twin Earth.

When we wave, we communicate “hello.” When they wave, they communicate something like what the middle finger communicates around here.

Now they think, like we do, that it would be morally wrong for you to be disrespectful in public. They just use different symbols. In fact, we do not disagree about the deep truths of morality, we just disagree about superficial things, like customs, conventions, and symbols.

As it happens, I bumped into a professor of ethics on Twin Earth, and I told her about this debate.

I told her that I thought that anything you may have, use, or exchange for free, you may have, use, or exchange on a market, usually for money. But that my debating partner disagreed, and thought that there were at least some things that you can do for free, but not for money.

I clarified the thesis as best I could.

I told her that I thought markets don’t introduce wrongness where none was present, that they were morally neutral. I told her that the wrong of slavery, for example, has nothing to do with the exchange of money. That slavery would be wrong even if you weren’t allowed to sell people, but could only get them as a gift. The wrong of “slaves for sale” is not located in the “for sale” part but in the slaves part.

I told her that the specific kinds of limits I have in mind are moral limits, and not other kinds of limits. So that, in principle, a regulated market, even a highly regulated one, is compatible with what I mean by “markets without limits.” That I’m not defending laissez-faire or a totally free and unregulated market.

The professor told me that I was going to lose the debate.

“It is pretty obvious,” she told me, “that there are at least a few things that it is morally permissible for you to have, use, or exchange, for free, but not for money.”

I asked her for examples.

“Well, the most obvious ones,” she said, “are medicine, and education.”

Puzzled, I asked her to explain. Here is what she said:

“Consider medicine for a moment. Clearly we don’t want to pay people who treat you for certain kinds of medical conditions, like anything to do with your genitals or your heart.”

“Indeed, our whole society is founded upon the ideal of one heart & genitals doctor, one patient, to the exclusion of all others. Every religion here on Twin Earth insists on this traditional definition of medicine.”

You see, on Twin Earth, you can go to different doctors for various ailments, and you can pay people for a whole variety of health care services, with the sole exception of anything to do with your heart and genitals.

For that, you can only have one doctor, who does not get paid for it. There is also a public ceremony where each person promises to be faithful to the other, and so on.

“There are a few obvious reasons for this,” she continued.

“For example, this sort of medicine is profoundly intimate and sacred. Think about the shame a person feels when they visit a doctor to talk about these issues. But we feel no shame when we have a lasting relationship with our one doctor.”

“In addition, when people go outside of this traditional institution, when they get this kind of medical help on the black market, they are more likely to contract various diseases. There is also a higher risk of violence.”

“Now consider education. It, too, is sacred,” she told me. “It involves the exchange of private and intimate views on matters of philosophy, economics, history, literature, and so on. This is partly why it would be wrong to pay professors or school teachers.”

On Twin Earth, they don’t pay teachers. There is no tuition, and there is no teaching profession. Instead, some people have a regular job, and sometimes volunteer to be a guest lecturer.

“If we paid people to teach,” she continued, “it would debase the sacredness of preparing our children for the future. It would corrupt our educational institutions.”

“It also leaves a space for altruism. A market in education would crowd-out altruism.”

“When we rely on altruism — on giving the gift of education — we are ensuring that the people who teach genuinely care about children and education for its own sake, not for the sake of profit. Children should be educated in a context of love.”

“In addition, knowing how markets work, there would also be an underclass of labourers — call them “adjuncts” — who would be paid a pittance and exploited by profiteering schools.”

As I said, she was a professor. I asked her how she managed to get a PhD without a market in education.

“Mostly you have to know someone,” she said. “So if your mom or dad, or a slightly more distant relative is qualified to take on graduate students, then they’ll take you. Otherwise, you have to get on a waitlist until someone is willing to be your supervisor for free.”

There is a waitlist on Twin Earth for people who want a college education. In 2016, there were over 100,000 people waiting to get into an undergraduate program in Twin America alone. That list keeps on growing every year, while the number of willing altruistic volunteers remains about the same.

I told her that, for the most part, nobody on Earth actually had a problem with paying teachers and, we don’t have a problem with people going to different doctors and paying them, even for heart conditions.

Instead, I told her, people on Earth object to markets of some sort in organs, sex, and surrogacy services.

She laughed at me.

“Oh,” she said. “People on Earth are silly. Apparently they can’t see the difference between mere convention, and the deep truths of morality.”

“Exactly what are they thinking? Why would they be willing to allow people to die on a wait list for organs? To preserve a space for altruism? But we do that here on Twin Earth by making education a matter of altruism. No one dies for want of a PhD, but people die, you tell me, for want of a kidney. Why don’t you switch?

And sex? Why make a fetish of sex? The purpose of sex is pleasure. Our religious texts have plenty of stories about husbands with, for example, multiple wives. Sex is intimate, of course. But it’s not as intimate as heart and genital medicine. Clearly medicine is actually sacred, while sex only seems to be so.

“As for children, it sounds to me like the system you have means that just anyone can have babies, without a system in place to ensure that these people will in fact provide a good home for the child. It’s like you don’t care about the well-being of children at all. If you cared for them, you would have more surrogates, like we do, who are contracted after careful deliberation, not careless intoxication.”

I was struck by how similar the arguments were against paying teachers and doctors on Twin Earth, to arguments that are used here on Earth against a market in organs, in sex, and in commercial surrogacy.

We want to leave a space for altruism, people on Earth say, and so therefore we are not to have a market in organs. They say the same thing on Twin Earth, except they think it follows that we therefore should not pay teachers.

I see why it’s important for children to be educated by people who genuinely care for the children. But when I think of the teachers I’ve had throughout my life, I’m convinced that very many, if not all of them, actually cared for me. They were paid for teaching, but the money wasn’t their sole nor even primary motivation. Just because you get paid for something doesn’t mean that you therefore eliminate space for altruism.

People on Twin Earth seem to think that education and medicine are sacred and special in the very same way that we here on Earth seem to think our organs and sex are sacred and special. Maybe we’re both right, but even if so, exactly what follows about paying people for teaching and for providing health care, or paying people for organs or for sex? A whole lot of nothing, it seems to me. Paying a teacher or a doctor is not incompatible with thinking that education and medicine are both a sacred calling. Selling your kidney does not seem to me to be incompatible with sacredness either.

People on Twin Earth worry that if we paid teachers, children would not be raised in a context of love. That children would be regarded by teachers as a means to the goal of mere profit. That seems to me to be similar in many ways to our worries about commercial surrogacy. Will children who are the result of surrogacy arrangements be properly cared for? Will children who are educated by people who earn a salary for teaching be well-educated? I think the answer to the latter question is, with some exceptions, obvious. Sure they are. And sure they will be. Doesn’t that tell us something about the former question too?

People on Twin Earth worry that if there was a market in education, there would be a group of people who would be exploited. Here on Earth we worry that paying for kidneys will lead to poor people selling kidneys. We have plenty of poorly-paid adjuncts here in the U.S. part of our Earth. That may be a problem, but is the problem impossible to overcome through regulation, for example? Is it a sufficiently large problem to even want regulatory intervention? I’m not sure. But I am sure that, at least in principle, the problem isn’t so insoluble as to want us to do away with markets in education altogether.

Of course my own view is that paying for all of these things is perfectly permissible, in principle.

Provided that commercial surrogacy is consistent with the best interests of the child, and that all parents heed the moral obligation of doing what is best for him or her, it is in principle permissible. Provided that a market in organs avoids wrongful exploitation, which can be addressed through appropriate regulation, selling a kidney is in principle permissible. And provided that sex is sold in a way that minimizes dangers to health, and reduces violence, it is at least better than a black market in sex.

In principle, markets in all of these things are morally permissible.

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CHANGE Fri, 08 Jul 2016 19:06:08 +0000 Think nothing can be done? Vote for Gary Johnson. Let’s work on getting moralistic and paternalistic laws off the books so that there is less policing in the first place....

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Think nothing can be done? Vote for Gary Johnson. Let’s work on getting moralistic and paternalistic laws off the books so that there is less policing in the first place. No, this isn’t easy, but changing federal law (POTUS doesn’t do this directly, but can have an affect) and having a SCOTUS that will take seriously protecting individuals from bad state law may be the best way to start.

Consider the following very-possible case: police pull over a car because they can see that neither the driver nor the passenger is wearing a seatbelt and in this jurisdiction, seatbelts are required and failure to wear them is sufficient for a stop.  (Driver’s and passenger’s first charges.)  The passenger happens to smell of marijuana smoke.  Now there is probable cause to search the car.  The passenger resists.  (Passenger’s second charge.)  Officer finds 3 ounces of marijuana and some plastic bags.  (Driver’s second and passenger’s third charge: possession with intent to distribute.)  Officer finds a gun under driver’s seat.  Driver has legal right to this gun (licensed, etc).  (Driver’s third charge: possession of firearm during the commission of a felony, that being the possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.)  Isn’t it clear that things in this situation can get heated?

Imagine being a business person on your way to deliver a good to your customer and then being pulled over as the two people in that example were.  Wouldn’t you be annoyed?  Assume you start out cooperative.  As the officer that pulls you over starts charging you with various crimes that have nothing to do with harming anyone and that seem … well …. contrived, wouldn’t you get upset?  You couldn’t be charged with illegally having a firearm, for example, but for the fact that you were delivering the harmless good to your customer.  You get upset.  The police officer gets upset because you get upset.  This seems like a pretty clear recipe for further problems.

Having a libertarian that wants to rid the country of moralistic and paternalistic laws seems like a path to solving the problems.  Johnson has not come down as firmly on these issues as I would like (his response to the question about hard drugs on the CNN “town hall” was much weaker then it could and should have been), but he is at least for decriminalizing marijuana and might be open to discussing more.  And he is clearly more likely to agree with Justice Sotomayor about the problem of the carceral state then Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. (See her dissenting opinion in Utah v. Strieff.)

So let me suggest again: Vote libertarian!


  1. Peter suggested I add these:

GaryJohnson2 GaryJohnson1

2. I saw these related pieces, well worth reading, after I put up this post: Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, Jack Hitt at Mother Jones, and perhaps less to the liking of our readers, José Martín at Rolling Stone.

3. Finally, take a look at this Guardian piece.  Imagine, as Steve Horwitz did, that “the two major US political parties were the Libertarians and the Greens.”

OH, and this from the LP.

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Review of Markets without Limits at NDPR Wed, 20 Apr 2016 11:06:52 +0000 Jonathan Anomaly reviews Markets without Limits at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. In addition to providing an excellent and useful summary of the main moves the the book, Anomaly argues that Jaworski and...

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Jonathan Anomaly reviews Markets without Limits at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. In addition to providing an excellent and useful summary of the main moves the the book, Anomaly argues that Jaworski and I are perhaps too conciliatory to the other side:

But Brennan and Jaworski arguably don’t go far enough by offering us moral permissions rather than requirements.

It is plausible that we have an obligation to exert significant effort to change socially harmful semiotic conventions, even at great personal cost, when we have the power to do so. Influential academics like Satz and Sandel, or Brennan and Jaworski, can be thought of as norm entrepreneurs with special obligations to defend or criticize the prevailing semiotics with novel arguments.


Anomaly has considerable background in moral psychology, so he’s particularly interested in the part V of the book, where Jaworski and I start to question whether philosophers’ intuitions about market exchanges are merely dressed-up disgust reactions:


Our moral intuitions evolved, in part, to solve collective action problems in small-scale societies.[6] So they are often unreliable guides to how we should organize large-scale political institutions, or react to how people raised in very different communities choose to live their lives. This suggests that we should be careful to avoid elevating a moral intuition or a value-laden gut reaction to the status of an enforceable law unless we can show that doing so prevents harm to others, improves social welfare, protects autonomy, or promotes other widely shared values that can survive scrutiny. Aversion to incest and homosexuality almost certainly helped our ancestors maximize inclusive fitness, even if these aversions fail to promote human welfare, especially in the modern world. Evolution has never “aimed at” making creatures happy, but at least some of the moral intuitions that gave our ancestors reproductive advantages in the past cause tremendous misery in the present, especially when we unreflectively use these intuitions to ground social norms or legal sanctions.[7]

Some critics of markets that elicit repugnance would argue that we just haven’t yet found a justification for these attitudes,[8] while Brennan and Jaworski would likely say this is because a justification is not forthcoming. Both sides are making an inference to the best explanation, but I suspect Brennan and Jaworski are right.

It’s worth exploring some parallels between inferences we might make in ethics with those in the sciences. Long before the advent of genetics, Charles Darwin knew that for evolution by natural selection to work, there had to be some mechanism (what we now know to be DNA) for faithfully transmitting information to create body parts and repair tissues (from what we now know to be proteins). The best explanation was that something was there doing the work, although Darwin didn’t quite know what.

Similarly, cosmologists have noticed that the universe is expanding at a rate that exceeds what gravity alone can account for. Many cosmologists assume the best explanation for the universe’s accelerating rate of expansion is something they call “dark energy” (dark energy differs from dark matter, but has a similar placeholder status as an unknown feature of the universe that is supposed to help explain well-understood phenomena).

Are the gut reactions we feel when we encounter a market that makes us queasy an indicator that our queasiness is justified, for reasons we don’t yet understand? Maybe so, but I doubt it. In high stakes cases like markets for organs or genetically engineered babies, we should take our cue from Brennan and Jaworski and look to the expected consequences of markets — including regulated markets — on human welfare as a way of gauging whether our gut reactions are a reliable indicator of whether a market is morally justified.

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Ben Barber’s Consumed: Where’s the Evidence? Thu, 12 Nov 2015 23:12:20 +0000 Unfortunately, due to a series of unfortunate events, it’s going to be just Peter and I versus Barber at Cato Unbound this month. I don’t know if Barber intends to respond...

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Unfortunately, due to a series of unfortunate events, it’s going to be just Peter and I versus Barber at Cato Unbound this month. I don’t know if Barber intends to respond further.

In a new short piece, I criticize Barber’s Consumed for failing to provide proper evidence for, well, any of its claims. Barber argues by hurling accusations and assertions, and backs these up at most with a few anecdotes. That won’t do, as I explain here.


We also don’t see any empirical evidence from Barber that market societies actually undermine citizens’ participation in democracy. Barber believes that markets draw us away from the forum and public life and into private concerns. But, again, he doesn’t provide proper evidence this is so. We might try to test this thesis by seeing whether more marketized societies have lower rates of political participation. To that end, in our book, Peter and I look at standard measures of voter turnout for the world’s democracies and then plot these against the Fraser Institute’s economic freedom rankings. We find a very slight but statistically significant positive correlation: all things equal, the more capitalist a society is, the higher voter turnout it has. We note in the book that this is not sufficient to prove for sure that markets do not reduce participation, but still, we’ve brought a knife to what’s supposed to be a gun fight, but in which the other party came unarmed.

For someone who decries consumerism and the supposed anti-intellectualism of capitalism, Barber is a strange and ironic character. He’s a member of the political science profession, but seems to have no respect for the basic methods of the field. Ironically, it seems like Barber is happy to violate standards of evidence or norms of argumentative rigor… for moneyand fame.


I was disappointed in Barber’s behavior. I didn’t expect him to make a good counterargument, but I expected him to at least engage us in a serious manner.

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The Bad Libertarian Argument for Commodification Fri, 18 Sep 2015 12:57:31 +0000 For any particular good X, is morally permissible for you to sell X? Note that this question doesn’t ask whether selling X ought to be legal. Rather, it asks whether selling...

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For any particular good X, is morally permissible for you to sell X?

Note that this question doesn’t ask whether selling X ought to be legal. Rather, it asks whether selling X would be morally wrong.

Some libertarians think these questions are easy. If X belongs to you, of course you can sell it. For example, “it’s my body” so of course I sell sex or organs. Right?

Not so fast. In Markets without Limits, Peter Jaworski and I explain why this kind of argument doesn’t do the work some libertarians think it does. An excerpt:

To own something is to have a property right in it. But, as most philosophers of property rights have noted, a property right is not just one right, but a bundle of separate rights. As David Schmidtz explains:

Today, the term ‘property rights’ generally is understood to refer to a bundle of rights that could include rights to sell, lend, bequeath, use as collateral, or even destroy. (John Lewis generally is regarded as the first person to use the ‘bundle of sticks’ metaphor, in 1888.) The fact remains, though, that at the heart of any property right is a right to say no: a right to exclude non-owners. In other words, a right to exclude is not just one stick in a bundle. Rather, property is a tree. Other sticks are branches; the right to exclude is the trunk.

A property right is really a collection of separate rights, which generally include the right to sell, to buy, to lease or rent, to destroy, to modify, and to use…

We want to be clear that we are not arguing that it follows, as a matter of logic (from the meaning of the concept of “property right”) that if something is permissibly someone’s property, that she may then sell it. Certain libertarian thinkers might be tempted to make this argument, but we reject it, for three reasons.

 First, if we did try to ground our thesis on property rights, it would not really settle the debate. It would just shift the debate to a related debate. If we did insist that to have the right to own something meant a right to sell it, then at best, the question for debate would just become what people have the right to own. Nothing would change. For instance, it wouldn’t settle the debate about whether you can sell sex or kidneys. Instead, the debate would shift to a debate about whether you really own your body.

Second, we think this argument rests on a conceptual mistake in its analysis of property rights. After all, we have the rightful power to determine what happens to different things in different ways—and the bundle of rights that attaches to this rightful power varies. The strength of our rights also varies. I can have property in a cat and a car, but my power over the cat—which may be better understood as “guardianship” rather than ownership—doesn’t allow me to do as much with it as my ownership of the car does. The way I have a property in a cat is different from how I own a car, which is different from how I own a guitar, which is different from how I own a plot of land, etc. So, for instance, my ownership right to my guitar includes the right to destroy it at will for any capricious reason, but my right to my cat does not include such a right. My right to my house includes the right to sell it, but, because of a restricted covenant, it does not include the right to paint it neon orange with neon pink polka-dots.

Now consider the right to sell. Certain property rights come with restricted covenants—you can buy some things, but lack the corresponding right to sell them, or have only limited rights to sell. So, for instance, I (Jason) have a property right to a pool club membership, but I may sell my membership only to someone who buys my house, and only at a price set by the pool club. My ownership over the membership is not the same as my ownership over my guitars, which I have the right to sell at will on any mutually agreeable terms. Another example: you probably own a license to use many forms of software, but you agreed, as part of the purchase, that this ownership did not include the right to resell the software when you are finished with it.

Third, and most importantly, we think this argument makes a further conceptual mistake in that it conflates two separate questions:

  1. What do you have the right to do with your property?
  2. What is right for you to do with your property?

A and B are distinct. In general, if you have the right to do something, this does not presuppose that it is morally right for you to do it. Rights are not about what’s morally permissible for the right-holder to do. Instead, they are more about what’s morally permissible for other people to do to the rights-holder. So, for instance, suppose my wife lovingly gives me a new guitar for my birthday. The guitar is mine, and I have the right to destroy it—no one should stop me from doing so. But, if I were to destroy it, I’d act badly, as I would hurt my wife’s feelings. Or, as another example, I have the right to join a Neo-Nazi political rally and express hatred of Jews, but it would be immoral to do so. No one should stop me from being a Nazi, but I also shouldn’t be a Nazi.

Thus, an anti-commodification theorist could simply agree that people have the right to sell certain things (line-standing services, sex, organs, etc.) but then claim that it remains immoral and wrong to buy and sell those things, even though it is within people’s rights. The anti-commodification theorists would then conclude that certain markets should be legal, even if they are deeply immoral. Our goal here is to challenge the moral condemnation of these markets. We want to argue that markets in contested commodities like organs and sex are not merely within people’s rights, but are morally permissible.



There is no entailment from “You own X” to “It’s morally permissible for you to sell X.” At best,  sometimes, “You own X” implies “You have the right to sell X,” and even that is only generally true. So, the commodification debate is not easily settled by invoking libertarian self-ownership or anything like that.



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Of Course We Should Allow Kidney Sales Thu, 17 Sep 2015 13:17:53 +0000 I’m participating in a debate, of sorts, in the Pan-Am Post. Drawing from Markets without Limits, I point out that most opposition to organ sales is about the how, not the what. Opponents...

The post Of Course We Should Allow Kidney Sales appeared first on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

I’m participating in a debate, of sorts, in the Pan-Am Post. Drawing from Markets without Limits, I point out that most opposition to organ sales is about the how, not the what. Opponents complain about contingent features that could be removed or regulated away.


But markets in kidneys are illegal. The government sets the legal price of organs at $0, far below the implicit equilibrium market price. Thus, an economist might say: of course there is a shortage, whenever the legal price of a good is set below the equilibrium price, the quantity demanded will exceed the quantity supplied.

Many philosophers and economists thus think that markets in organs will eliminate the shortage. You aren’t kind enough to give away your extra kidney to a stranger, but you might do it for $100,000. Defenders of organ sales believe it will save hundreds of thousands of lives annually and will help make the poor richer.

Making kidney markets illegal is quite literally killing people.

Many people think that markets in kidneys would have certain undesirable or exploitative features, but these problems can be overcome by designing and/or regulating the market appropriately.

Consider this: some object that if markets in kidneys were legal, then the price of a kidney would be so high that only the rich could afford it. But, in parallel, some poor people can’t afford food. We don’t as a result forbid markets in food.

Instead, we subsidize the poor by issuing food stamps. We could issue means-tested kidneys stamps as well. Further, on a free market in kidneys, the price would likely be much lower than it is on the current black market.

Others object that the poor would be exploited by the rich. Even if so, this at best shows not that markets in kidneys should be forbidden, but that only people who are sufficiently rich — for instance, who make over $60,000 a year — should be allowed to sell kidneys.

Others object that people will rush to sell kidneys without a full understanding of the risks involved. But, again, at best this shows we should require would-be kidney sellers to be licensed. Before being allowed to sell, they must pass a test, akin to a driver’s license exam, showing they understand the costs and benefits.

In the end, some people feel that selling kidneys is just plain wrong, because it somehow violates human dignity or the integrity of the body. But this kind of disgust at kidney markets is quite literally killing people. There is no wisdom in repugnance.

Many things we now regard as normal or the hallmarks of responsibility — such as life insurance, anesthesia, or being willing to work for a wage — were once seen as undignified, or disgusting, or “commodifying life.” People’s lives are at stake here. It’s time to grow up and get over our primitive aversion to kidney markets.

Now, I myself prefer a free market in organ sales rather than a heavily regulated one. But that’s a secondary point. The question of whether we should have markets in kidneys is not the same as whether we should have unregulated free markets without governmental social insurance. You can be a social democrat and love kidney markets, or a libertarian and hate them.

Journalist Pedro García Otero offers a counterargument that is, I think, not persuasive:

From a recipient’s perspective, how much would a kidney be worth if he or she were dying? Priceless, no doubt. What about from the donor’s perspective? No sale would ever be voluntary. It would always be motivated, or more likely coerced, by desperate economic circumstances. This makes way for corruption.

To be frank, I’m not really sure what he’s getting at. Out of context, this passage is more clear than in context.

But one idea sort of hinted at here is that perhaps the market would be highly exploitative because buyers would be desperate and sellers would not be. People on the Left, and sometimes even on the Right, trot out this kind of argument. But it rests on a mistake.

Way back in 1817, David Ricardo asked us to consider a situation like this. Suppose Bob is desperate to rent land from a landowner. Suppose there are 50 landowners, none of whom is desperate to rent out their land, but each of whom can profit from doing so. You might think the landowners would give Bob a bad deal, since Bob is desperate and they are not. But, Ricardo points out, you’ve got things backwards. In this case, the landowners have to compete amongst themselves. Each can profit by outbidding the others, but offering Bob a better and better deal. Bob will actually capture almost all the bargaining space for himself. So, Ricardo reminds us, bargaining power isn’t just about desperation vs. indifference. Rather, it’s about competition. Bob has no competition (he’s a monopsony buyer of land rent) while the owners have lots of competition.

What happens, instead, if there is lots of competition on both sides? Well, then we get a normal competitive market.

People, especially those on the Left, often lazily argue against certain markets by asserting, without good evidence, that the market in question will be (behave as if it were) monopsonistic or monopolistic, and thus allow some to exploit others. (I’m looking at you, Marx. Read some real econ and take a shower while you’re at it.) Usually they have no evidence for this claim. But even in the uncommon cases where they do identify such monopsonies or monopolies, the solution isn’t obviously to forbid a market, but to do things to break up the monopsony or monopoly.

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From a Reader Wed, 16 Sep 2015 13:34:15 +0000 In response to Markets without Limits, Alberto Lázaro sent me this. That’s Michael Sandel in the Superman suit. After posting this on a Facebook, a friend asked, “Wait, aren’t you supposed to...

The post From a Reader appeared first on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

In response to Markets without LimitsAlberto Lázaro sent me this. That’s Michael Sandel in the Superman suit.


After posting this on a Facebook, a friend asked, “Wait, aren’t you supposed to be the good guy?” Perhaps Sandel is the Superman of Injustice:


Or perhaps I am the bad guy. But in the pic, I’m winning, so I like it.



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How Are Markets like Guitar Amps? Sat, 12 Sep 2015 14:08:40 +0000 In Markets without Limits, Peter Jaworski and I try to show people that most of the time, their opposition to commodifying certain goods and services isn’t actually about what is being...

The post How Are Markets like Guitar Amps? appeared first on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

In Markets without Limits, Peter Jaworski and I try to show people that most of the time, their opposition to commodifying certain goods and services isn’t actually about what is being sold, but how it’s being sold. People find something about the market they don’t like, and conclude we shouldn’t have a market in that thing. But, most of the time, the solution is just to change the market. They aren’t in principle opposed to buying and selling, but just buying and selling a certain way.

Toward that end, here’s an excerpt from another paper Jaworski and I have, where we explain how markets are like guitar amps. Some guitar amps sound bad on certain settings. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad; it just means you have to change the settings:

…Consider, as an analogy: Guitar amplifiers have many control knobs on the front, knobs that adjust the volume (or “post-gain”), the equilization (treble, midrange, and bass), the gain (also called “pre-gain”, “overdrive”, or “distortion”), and other factors (reverb, presence, resonance, etc). Some amplifiers are “touchy” or “hard to dial in”; that is, they sound good only with very specific settings. For instance, the Mesa Boogie Mark series of amplifiers—a famous type of amplifier you have heard on thousands of rock, metal, and jazz songs—only sounds right with the bass knob nearly off. Some amplifiers are incredibly touchy and sound good only at one very specific setting. For instance, legendary guitarist Steve Vai’s signature Carvin Legacy amplifier needs to have the presence knob exactly at 7; any higher and the amp sounds shrill, any lower and it sounds flubby. Other amplifiers are “easy to dial in”. For instance, the legendary Marshall Super Lead—another amp you’ve heard thousands of times in thousands of recordings—sounds good at basically any setting.

We think markets are a bit like guitar amplifiers. Guitar amps have various knobs that can be put on different settings, and, as a result, make the amplifier sound good or bad. Similarly, markets might have a range of variables that can be put to different settings. Changing the settings might change the market from good or bad, or bad too good. Just as some guitar amps sound good only on very specific settings, some markets might be good only on very specific settings. Or, just as other guitar amps sound good no matter what the settings, so other markets might be good not matter what the settings.

If markets are kind of like amplifiers, what are the different knobs and what do they do? Consider the following variables, which we can call the nine dimensions of market exchange:


  1. Participants (buyer, seller, middleman, broker, etc; adults, the young; financial experts, lay consumers, etc.)
  2. Means of exchange (money, barter, local currency, bitcoins, gift cards, etc.)
  3. Price (high, low, moderate, etc.)
  4. Proportion / Distribution (how much each party gets)
  5. Mode of exchange (auction, lottery, bazaar, co-op, etc.)
  6. Mode of payment (salary, scholarship, tip, charitable contribution, honorarium, etc.)
  7. Motive of exchange (for-profit, public benefit, cost-recovery, non-profit, charitable, etc.)
  8. Time of exchange (date or time of day the exchange takes place)
  9. Place of exchange (where it is being sold?)


If we describe dimensions one through seven, inclusively, as the manner of market exchange, then the nine dimensions can be redescribed as the time, place, and manner options for market exchanges. If each of the nine dimensions had only three options (although there are many more), that would give us 39 possible permutations, or 19,683 different kinds of market options. The market is not all one thing. For any given object of sale, there are at least 20,000 ways to structure the market in that object.

This is our general challenge to anti-commodification critics. It won’t be enough for them to show us that some markets are bad—morally impermissible—on some or even many “settings”. They need to show us that markets in certain commodities are bad on all possible settings. Otherwise, if we can find even one “setting” for a particular market, then our thesis stands. So, to take a silly example, suppose it turns out to be permissible to buy and sell kidneys only for exactly $56,000 in bitcoins, only while the buyers and sellers are singing “When I’m 64,” and only on the fourth Friday of May. Even then, that means that kidneys are properly the kind of thing that can be bought and sold. The anti-commodification critics would be wrong. They are at best overgeneralizing.[i]

Thus, consider Anderson’s complaints about commercial surrogacy markets. Her objections to surrogacy arrangements are varied and multifold. She objects to the attitude that surrogates take towards the child. She objects to the attitude she discovers towards women’s reproductive labor that she believes is inherent to surrogacy arrangements (1990, 77). She objects to the contractual features that require a woman to give up her baby despite the fact that women may change their minds. They change their minds, when they do, partly because of a gross lack of information – surrogates do not now know how much they will bond with the child once it comes time to fulfill the contract. She objects to the fact that no one represents the interests of the child, just as “no industry assigns agents to look after the “interests” of its commodities” (1990, 76). Finally, she objects to the role that brokers play in contemporary surrogacy arrangements, which can be corrupting. The broker, says Anderson, is motivated and incentivized to try and get the surrogate to release the product of her labors, even if she becomes attached, or changes her mind.

In order for Anderson to get the conclusion that she wants — that we ought to have a full moral (and perhaps legal) prohibition on surrogacy arrangements — it must be the case that there is no way of forming or creating a surrogacy market that is consistent with taking the right attitude toward women’s reproductive labor or towards the child. Perhaps a case like this can be made, but this case has never been made, and Anderson does not even try to make that case. At best, what Anderson has demonstrated is that women’s reproductive labor (and the children that are the product of that labor) were wrongfully and disrespectfully commodified in a market like the one we had in 1990, with brokers, and so on.

In order for her argument to be successful, she would need to demonstrate either that the form that the market currently takes with respect to surrogacy is a necessary and not merely contingent form given the kind of thing that surrogacy is, or that there does not exist a possible form that a market could take that would not wrongfully commodify women’s reproductive labor and the children that are the product of that labor.

Consider: The broker is a contingent, and not a necessary element to the surrogacy market. Brokers probably make the market more “efficient,” and permit us to economize on information and transaction costs (brokers are, after all, experts of a sort). Nevertheless, they are hardly constitutive of markets. We could have surrogacy arrangements without brokers. Indeed, Brennan has friends who are employing a surrogate, and they did not use a broker. So the broker objection can be overcome by designing brokers out of a surrogacy market. Alternatively, we might distinguish between “mean” and “nice” brokers. Mean brokers are brokers that prioritize making money rather than ensuring that each party is treated as an end, and gives genuine and uncoerced consent to the transaction. So we shouldn’t have commercial surrogacy arrangements with mean brokers, but it would be the meanness, and not the broker-ness, that would be objectionable.

The nature of the contract is also contingent. Anderson worries that the terms of contemporary surrogacy arrangements require that a woman give up the child even if she becomes attached, or changes her mind. We note, as a side issue, that courts have not required specific performance, preferring, instead, to grant parental rights to the surrogate as well as the biological or genetic father of the child when surrogates have changed their mind. We can put this worry about surrogacy aside merely by redesigning the terms of the contract in order to include a “change of mind” clause: If, for any reason, the surrogate changes her mind, the contract is null and void. It would still be a market. So, again, Anderson’s objection to surrogacy markets seems to be about the how, not the what.

The fact that no one represents the interests of the child is not a necessary feature of the market. We could institute a rule that requires an agent to function on behalf of the child’s interests in all surrogacy arrangements. We already do this in disputes over inheritance when the inheritor is a young child. We could do the same for surrogacy arrangements.

When it comes to a surrogacy market, we can change the manner in very many different ways. The participants can be (and already are) restricted. The price could be different, and the proportion of the money can be distributed between the seller of the service, the broker, any agencies involved, and so on, differently. The payment need not be money that the seller personally receives, she could be paid in a charitable contribution made on her behalf, or the money could go into a scholarship fund for the baby, or for a baby she might have in the future. We could also insist on price floors or ceilings, or a uniform, standardized price consistent across all surrogates.

Apart from the participants, the mode of payment, the price, and the proportion or distribution, we could also change the mode of exchange. Surrogacy arrangements could make use of lotteries, with surrogates receiving a fixed payment from a pool of hopeful parents who enter a lottery with equal odds of ending up with a child. The babies could, perhaps, be auctioned, although we suspect many of our readers will find that especially distasteful.

Similar remarks apply to many other markets that anti-commodification theorists oppose.

[i] Satz 2012 seems to agree. She thinks that markets in sex are bad under current conditions, but holds that in a properly egalitarian society, they would be unproblematic.

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If You May Do It for Free, You May Do It for Money Wed, 09 Sep 2015 11:44:53 +0000 That’s the thesis of Markets without Limits. But what does it really mean? Some excerpts from the book: OUR THESIS No one thinks that literally everything and anything should be for...

The post If You May Do It for Free, You May Do It for Money appeared first on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

That’s the thesis of Markets without Limits. But what does it really mean? Some excerpts from the book:


No one thinks that literally everything and anything should be for sale under any circumstances, no matter what. Everyone thinks there are at least some cases in which certain things should not be for sale.

Despite this admission, our title Markets without Limits is not misleading. There is an important sense in which we do advocate markets with unlimited scope. Our view of the scope of the market can be summarized as follows:


Markets without Limits:

If you may do it for free, then you may do it for money.


To put in a more long-winded way, if you may have, use, possess, and dispose of something (that does not belong to someone else) for free, then—except in special circumstances—it is permissible for you to buy and sell it. Another way of expressing our thesis is that the market does not transform what were permissible acts into impermissible acts. It does not introduce wrongness where there was not any already. Yet another way of expressing this is that, in the debate on commodification, to produce a successful argument for a limit on markets, the fact that something is on the market must cause or contribute to the wrongness. It must feature in an explanation for why it is wrong.

To illustrate these ideas, consider the following two markets:

  1. Child Porn. A market in which people sell pornographic images of young children.
  2. Nuclear Weapons: A market in which arm dealers sell nuclear weapons.

We agree that child porn and nuclear weapons should not be for sale. But the problem with these markets isn’t the markets themselves—it’s that the items for sale should not be possessed, period. It’s wrong to possess child pornography even if you acquired it for free. The wrongness of markets in child pornography does not originate in the market, but in the existence of the traded item in the first place…

…[W]e agree to the following principle:


The Principle of Wrongful Possession:

If it is inherently morally wrong for someone to possess (do, use) X, then (normally) it is morally wrong for that person to buy or sell X.


As far as we can tell, everyone in this debate agrees to the Principle of Wrongful Possession. It follows trivially, on that principle, that if someone inherently shouldn’t have something, then he or she should not sell it or buy it. Because child porn shouldn’t exist, it also shouldn’t be for sale.

Similarly, consider the case of dog fighting. For the sake of argument, let’s agree that dog fighting wrongfully mistreats dogs. If so, then we agree that people shouldn’t sell tickets to dog fights or bids on dog fights. But, again, the reason people shouldn’t sell dog fights is that dog fights shouldn’t exist. It would be wrong to host dog fights for free. Selling tickets doesn’t introduce wrongness where there wasn’t any to begin with…

…Or, to take another example, Michael Sandel complains about parents trying to sell naming rights to their children. He worries children might end up being named “Pepsi Peterson” or “Jamba Juice Jones”. But, in our view and in Sandel’s, the problem here is that these names are humiliating. If so, then parents shouldn’t give their kids these names, period, for free. If so, the market for naming kids Pepsi is wrong because naming kids Pepsi is wrong. The problem isn’t the market. In contrast, Brennan named his children Aiden and Keaton. Since it was permissible for him to do so for free, it would be, in our view, permissible for him to do so for a fat check from Pepsi…

When critics of the market, such as Sandel or Satz, write books about what should not be for sale, what they intend to do is to identify things that are normally permissible for adults to possess, own, have, occupy, provide, or use, but which are not permissible for those adults to trade, sell, and/or buy. They intend to discuss cases where markets really do transform otherwise permissible activities into wrongful actions. They intend to identify cases where the wrongness of buying and selling an object originates in the buying and selling, not in the object itself…


There are many cases where—thanks to special circumstances—it can be wrong for particular people to buy and sell certain things that would otherwise be permissible to buy and sell. We want to explain here why this does not conflict with our thesis. In fact, it’s just an extension of it.

Consider two new cases


  1. Civic Duty, for Profit. It’s November 8, 2016, election day in the United States. Mary doesn’t plan to vote. Her friend Natalie—a long-time activist—says, “What if I pay you $100 to vote a straight Democrat ticket?” Mary agrees and votes accordingly.


  1. But You Promised! Kevin and Jane are in the process of moving. Kevin wants to have a yard sale to reduce the amount of stuff they have to pack. Jane is sentimental and wants to keep as much stuff as possible. After some discussion, Kevin promises Jane that he will not sell any of his vintage cameras, even though he does not want to keep them all. However, during the yard sale, he sells one for $50 behind her back. Jane never notices, but he knows she would be enraged if she learned he’d sold the camera.


Most people believe that selling is wrong in both cases. They think it is wrong for Mary to sell her vote (and for Natalie to buy it) and wrong for Kevin to sell the vintage camera.

But most people also think the cases are importantly different. Most people would say that selling a vote is inherently wrong. Votes are simply not the kind of thing that should be for sale. (We disagree, but right now we’re just reporting what others tend to think.)

In contrast, most people think there is nothing inherently wrong about selling a vintage camera. Instead, what makes selling wrong in this particular case is that Kevin promised not to do so. So, it’s just incidental, accidental, or contingent that selling a camera was wrong here. In short, the difference here, most people would say, is that votes are just not the kind of thing that should be for sale, while cameras are the kind of thing that may be sold, except in special circumstances.


To summarize, we have so far discussed three kinds of limits to markets:

A. Limits Due to the Principle of Wrongful Possession: There are some things that people inherently should not have—indeed, that should not even exist—and, as a consequence, people should not buy or sell

B. Incidental Limits to the Market: There are cases where particular people should not sell particular things—things that normally would be permissible to sell—because of special circumstances, such as that they promised not to sell those items, or the items will be dangerous in these special circumstances, or because they have pre-existing duties that require them to do something else other than engage in buying or selling

C. Inherent Limits to the Market: There are some things that people are normally allowed to own or possess in some way, but which should not be for sale.


A and B are in some sense limits on the market, but only in boring, trivial ways. A and B are not what anti-commodification theorists have in mind when they say we ought to limit the scope of the market. C is where the action is.

We accept A and B, but reject C. We think there are no inherent limits to the market. If you can have it, you can buy it; if you can give it away to someone, you can sell it to her.

To illustrate, we think that if it is morally permissible for you to vote a particular way, then it is also morally permissible for you to be paid to vote that way or to pay someone to vote that way. We think that it if it is permissible for you to have sex with someone for free, then it is by default permissible to buy and sell sex with that person. We think that if it is permissible for you to stand in line at the amusement park, then it will by default be permissible for you to accept money to stand in line for someone else. We think that if it is permissible for you to choose to act as someone’s slave for the rest of your life for free, then it would also by default be permissible for you to take money to do so. [We say “by default” because there are incidental limits–you might owe certain people the thing for free due to a past promise or whatnot.]

Notice that many of these claims take a conditional form: If it is permissible to do X for free, then you may do X for money. In many of these cases, we don’t know whether it is permissible to do X for free. So, for instance, we aren’t sure whether it is morally permissible for you to choose, voluntarily, to become someone else’s slave for the rest of your life. We can come up with good arguments for and against this. We don’t know how to balance these arguments. That said, we think that whatever wrongness exists in voluntary paid slavery emerges from voluntary slavery, not from the payment. If it turns out to be wrong for you to voluntarily accept $1 million to be someone’s slave, then what makes it wrong is that you shouldn’t choose to be someone’s slave period, not that you received $1 million to do so. The market does not figure into the explanation of what makes this transaction wrong.

We agree that, say, a married man should not buy sex from a prostitute without his spouse’s permission. But this is because he should not have sex with someone else, period, without his spouse’s permission. The problem here isn’t prostitution, but cheating on his spouse.

Or, to extend this example, we agree that a person should not buy sex from pimps who deal with involuntarily enslaved, trafficked women. But here the problem is one of wrongful possession—the trafficker shouldn’t own the women to begin with. The market doesn’t introduce wrongness where there wasn’t any. It would be wrong to have sex with the trafficked women against their will even if the pimp offered them to you for free, and even if he never tried to make any money from the women…



            We want to make sure people, including the anti-commodification theorists themselves, do not confuse the question of this book—what kinds of things may be for sale—with another closely related issue.

            Sometimes people say we should not buy certain things because of how companies run their businesses. For instance, many people advocated boycotting Chik-fil-A when they learned that Chik-fil-A’s owners donated money to fight same-sex marriage rights. Others advocate boycotting Apple because one of its subcontractors—FoxConn—has bad working conditions for its employees. Others might advocate boycotting payday loans stores for predatory lending practices, or boycotting certain car dealerships for being dishonest or too aggressive in their sales techniques.

For the sake of argument, suppose that in these cases, we should boycott the businesses in question. In that sense, there would be a limit to markets. However, this is not what the anti-commodification theorists have in mind when discussing what should and should not be for sale. The problem with these businesses, according to their critics, is not that their products—chicken nuggets, iPhones, payday loans, or used cars—are inherently the kind of thing that should not be for sale. Rather, the problem, according to the critics, is just that these particular businesses are not being run according to ethical business practices.

Now, it might even turn out that all the businesses of a particular sort have such bad business practices that they all should be boycotted. So, for instance, imagine it turned out that, for some bizarre reason, all extant chicken nugget sellers were homophobes who donate half their profits to fight against civil rights. In that case, perhaps, one might have grounds not to buy the products in question, but that’s just incidental to the products. It would not show that the nuggets are the kinds of things that should not be for sale, but rather that they are not being sold the right way, or that they are being sold by unscrupulous people whom one should avoid.

We both teach business ethics classes. We don’t tell our students that businesses may just do as they please. Instead, businesses are bound by a wide range of negative duties—to avoid coercion, harm, exploitation, dishonesty, and so on—and can also acquire a wide range of positive duties. We agree that in some cases, when businesses egregiously violate the basic principles of business ethics, one should stop buying from or selling to those businesses.

But the debate over commodification is not about business ethics. (Anti-commodification critics frequently get this issue confused.) It is about whether certain things should not be for sale, period. It’s important not to get these distinct issues confused. If buying Chik-fil-A nuggets is wrong, it’s not because it’s wrong to buy nuggets, but because Chik-fil-A is unscrupulous. If they sold carpets instead of nuggets, the issue would be the same. So, in this case, it’s not the product being sold, but the seller that’s the problem. In contrast, when anti-commodification theorists say it’s wrong to buy line-standing services, the problem for them is not who sells the services, or how the services are sold, but the product itself.

Consider the following three claims:

  1. It is immoral to lie.
  2. It is immoral to cheat.
  3. It is immoral to steal.

From 1-3, we can deduce 4-6:

  1. It is immoral to lie while wearing a hat.
  2. It is immoral to cheat while wearing a hat.
  3. It is immoral to steal while wearing a hat.

4-6 follow logically from 1-3—if 1-3 are true, then so are 4-6. But suppose someone wrote a book called The Moral Limits of Hats, which tried to argue against universal hat-wearing by arguing for 4-6. We’d realize that the problem isn’t with wearing hats, but with lying, cheating, and stealing. Wearing a hat is incidental. Similarly, in the debate here, we’re considering what the moral limits of markets are. As we keep stressing, it’s imperative, in discussing the limits of markets, that the market be the problem, rather than be incidental, like wearing a hat in 4-6.


We once watched one of our colleagues debate an anti-commodification theorist over whether certain goods or services should be for sale. The anti-commodification theorist said that free markets in certain goods and services would be bad in various ways. Our colleague took the bait, and spent his time trying to show that free markets in those goods and services would not be so bad.

We bring up this example in order to clarity the debate. The question of whether it is morally permissible to have a market in some good or service is not the same as the question of whether it’s permissible to have a free, completely unregulated market in that good or service. Our thesis is that there are no inherent limits to what can be bought and sold. But that’s compatible with thinking that some things, or even all things, should only be bought and sold in highly regulated markets. The question of whether or not markets should be free and unregulated is a red herring in the anti-commodification debate.

To illustrate, notice the the following two positions are coherent:

  1. Anti-Market Libertarian: G. A. Rothbard, the genetically engineered child of Marxist G. A. Cohen and libertarian Murray Rothbard, thinks markets are bad, and that we should never buy or sell anything. He opposes all commodification, even of mundane items, such as books and pencils. However, G. A. Rothbard also believes that people have absolute negative rights against being interfered with when they buy and sell goods. Just as our rights of free speech allow us to say things that are wrong to say, he thinks we have rights to buy and sell even though doing so is always immoral. Thus, G. A. Rothbard thinks justice prohibits any coercive regulation of the market, but also thinks nothing should be for sale.
  2. ProCommodification Regulation Czar: Murray Cohen, a different genetically engineered child, believes that literally everything that can be possessed may be bought and sold, but also advocates having extensive government regulation of every transaction.


We don’t know of anyone who takes such positions, but they are positions in the logical space.

Thus, once again, we remind the anti-commodification critics that the commodification question is not about libertarianism or free markets. It’s a separate question. It turns out empirically that free market enthusiasts are less worried about commodification, but they remain separate questions.


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