Against against commodification (markets in everything)

Jason Brennan reports:

Commodification is a hot topic in recent philosophy. There’s a limitless market for books about the limits of markets. The question: Are there some things which you permissibly may possess, use, and give away, but which are wrong to buy and sell? Most authors who write about this say yes. Peter Jaworski and I say no. There are no inherent limits to markets. Everything you may give away you may sell, and everything you may take for free you may buy. We defend that thesis in our book Markets without Limits, which will be published by Routledge Press, most likely in late 2015 or early 2016. As of now, we have a completed first draft.

We plan to commodify the book itself. We will sell acknowledgements in the preface of the book.

There is more information here.  I thank Michael Wiebe for a relevant pointer.


'There are no inherent limits to markets. '

So when will they starting hosting auctions selling children?

That's not about the market, it's about ownership in the first place.
"which you permissibly may possess, use, and give away"

Custody rights are just such a thing, no?

Even if you win a custody battle, that doesn't give you the right to possess, use, and give away the kid!

However, I award you

bonus points for creativity. (Oops)

Adoption? That's giving away.

Adoption is BUYING A CHILD.

And the worst part is that the producers of children for sale (mothers giving up their children) don't get compensated- only the middle-men make any money off the deal.

Is there any principle underlying their "possess, use, and give away" limitation, except for the fact that it conveniently covers slavery but not organ donations?

I'm sure the book has the answer to your question (only $29.99).

I think you have this backwards. Their argument applies to organ donations, not to slaves.

Yes, so the artificial "limitation" they put on their argument applies to slaves, but not organ donations.

Interesting idea. Would it be immoral for a man to pay his wife's ex-husband to give up parental rights, allowing him to adopt the children? Or, how about offering to marry the wife, thereby ending alimony and child support, but only if the ex-husband allows the stepfather to adopt the kids?

Very interesting question.

Why would it be immoral? (Assuming that there was no immoral purpose.)

If his purpose is because he thinks natural father was "bad" and this is way to get "bad father" out of child's life, not only is it not IMMORAL but buying out (putting it as baldly as possible) "bad dad's" rights and responsibilities would be a positive social good.

And I don't think it is illegal. Father is not BUYING child. He is buying rights to be a legal parent. By definition, bad dad values money more than being a parent so good for him to go.


I detect a problem with selling acknowledgements. Is there a secondary market? That's to say, can I buy the right to an acknowledgement from somebody who's bought it from the authors?

Let's securitize it.

I have a large collection of engineering and industrial books, and it is not at all unusual for books from the UK to have paid advertisements in the back. Usually, it will be for manufacturers of machines used in the processes described in the book or suppliers of consumables used in that industry. Routledge is a UK publisher, so they shouldn't have a problem with this, though I'm not sure who would want to buy a page in Markets Without Limits.

Many technical books have advertisements here in the US as well. Professional books are quite unprofitable. It's a way to break even.

I'd like to have a page in that Piketty book to acknowledge me and my favorite hobbyhorses.

But how much would I pay? How many people will actually open up Piketty to end of book?

Now there's a thought. Sprinkle the acknowledgments throughout the book -- not just at the end. Best location? Right after intro and right before chapter 1? Hey! What about the back COVER!

"Love" and gratitude

Can't buy me......!!!

This reminded me of an entry for a word game where the idea was to take a common saying or quotation and add a word to change the meaning:

Love is just $20 around the corner.

I wonder if they will push the publisher to allow purchasers to be able to resell the e-book version.

Selling acknowledgements is a pretty hilarious idea. Seriously though, commodifying some things could change their nature so much as to make them unrecognizable.

Imagine what happens to the value of job recommendations is like the moment it is recognized that they can, and often, be bought. Same thing with paper publications: The moment I commoditize printing articles in Nature, then suddenly Nature is not really that much different from the magazines that are pay-to-publish. From some perspective, they are still words printed on paper, but the value of something that is buyable is very different from something that is not.

The signaling generated by something you bought is often very different from something you were given.


I think the point is that Nature should be allowed to charge fees to publish articles in their journal if they want to. This doesn't mean it is a wise or recommended course of action.

Just because something isn't immoral doesn't mean it's a good idea.

Let's take the "paying for a job recommendation" example.

Suppose the candidate buying the recommendation is a genuinely good candidate. What's the problem?
Suppose the candidate is not suitable for the job. Then, to recommend them would be dishonest. It would be immoral to do that for free.

In either case, being paid for the recommendation does not seem to affect its moral nature.

Are there any items that have to be commodities? Items that feel "right" to be bought/sold but feel "wrong" to give away?

Political favors

Say you know a large, street-smart Italian guy from Red Hook, Brooklyn. His business associates seem to keep giving him gifts, even things that don't seem to be normal gifts, utility items like refrigerators, tires, bulk crates of jeans, cartons of cigarettes. You certainly start to suspect that said gentlemen is not just currying all these gifts because he's well liked by the members of his social club.

I remember back in the 1970s, Andy Warhol sold the rights to use his name for a movie. So we got "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein" when, in fact, he had nothing at all to do with the movie. I think he was doing mockery of society as well as making money. So it was with all of his art.

There are some internal contradictions to some dimensions of commodification. One can sell sexual services, of course, but it is impossible to sell love. If it can be bought, it wasn't love. One cannot sell truth or trustworthiness: if one's honor is for sale, one does not have honor. If a commitment can be bought and sold and traded, there is no commitment to begin with. Integrity cannot be commodified without ceasing to be integrity.

It is not an ethical issue about what can be commodified. It is about internal contradictions. Impossibility, not undesirability.

Hope Tyler has sent them an invoice for the "free" advance publicity for the book.

In general, mercenary soldiers pose a moral problem. Do you kill other humans as the pay is good? Yes, this does raise questions about the US "volunteer"---employee---military.

In general, mercenary soldiers pose a moral problem.

But nothing compared to the moral problem of conscript / slave soldiers.

Interesting conundrum. The conscript soldier is absolved of his sins---he acted under duress. Only the state committed killing. The mercenary is complicit.
The draft military is the morally superior option, since only the state should kill.

Mercenary soldiers are not free to leave until their term is up, thus absolving them of sin as well.

Maybe, but I would say they knew the deal signing up.

You know, I don't think you've thought this through very carefully. Would you likewise prefer to have conscript rather than 'mercenary' police officers so that their use of force is always 'under duress' which then means 'only the state' is responsible?

The purpose of the police is not to kill, although it sometimes happens. The policeman shooting a suspect messed up, like the doctor who botched the surgery. That's why we have enquiries.

Police officers only kill in self defense (we hope) and that is moral. Mercenary soldiers commit slaughter as the pay is good. Gas a town just before your lunch break.

The problem with libertarians is that they lack a moral compass. Their moral emptiness is so complete, they have a hard time comprehending the views of others because they lack the necessary common experience.

As a libertarian I disagree with your premise, but I do agree that libertarians often do a terrible job of expressing sympathy.

For example, I am generally sympathetic toward the homeless. I wish everyone would "adopt a homeless person" and help raise him/her to a life of self-sufficiency... or, in the case of those truly unable to provide for themselves, at least to a life of clean sheets and quiet dignity. Depending on your religion, you may even feel that your faith *requires* you to do this.

My problem is that while I truly wish people would do this, I don't feel I have the right to coerce others into doing it, if they decide not to. Can you persuade me that (1) I have that right, and (2) I should exercise it?

*You* don't have the right to coerce people to redistribute their income to help the homeless. That's what it means to say it is "their"
income. It doesn't follow that the community as a whole doesn't have the right to impose, as a condition of earning income in that community, an obligation to pay some of their income into public projects, which could include helping the homeless.


"As a condition of not being killed in that community..."

It isn't violence that is the threat as much as your right to property. Property is meaningless without a state to enforce the right. As a condition to having your property rights enforced by the community the community may demand compensation however they choose. Violence can be threatened but it is usually a secondary option.

"Property is meaningless without a state to enforce the right."

Which is why if a property owner stops paying taxes, the property stops receiving services from police, firefighters, and state-run utilities? No, that is not what happens. Instead, the state actively and violently confiscates the property. This situation is much more analogous to paying protection since the agent your taxes is primarily protecting your property from is the agent whom you are paying.

And? The right to property is not revealed wisdom, nor is it a suicide pact. It is a social agreement to recognize exclusive claims. Nothing more. We agree to let you call that yours and to stop one another from infringing on it. Now, what's in it for us besides YOUR entitlement complex?


Okay. So *I* don't have the right to coerce. But if my neighbors and I get together, and agree amongst ourselves to coerce others, then we collectively have that right?

Perhaps, it depends on whether you have expectations based on your relationship with your neighbors. If you wish to join the general agreement to not use force or a society decides rules in how force is used then to reject that agreement has meaning.

Everyone has the ability to reject society but it must be understood that society is an all or nothing proposition. If you reject the basic social contract you are no longer protected from coercion and you also have rejected the commitment to not coerce others. So if you feel coerced that is because you are coerced but there is no natural right to be free from coercive groups. Just because society outnumbers you doesn't mean it isn't fair. Fairness has no natural meaning.

Don't you know we don't have to coerce anyone. You can simply tax the rich. It's not coercion, because they'll later thank you for taking a significant portion of their wealth since all the status competition was causing them stress.

Ricardo May 15, 2014 at 6:15 pm wrote: "I wish everyone would “adopt a homeless person” and help raise him/her to a life of self-sufficiency."
So how is the homeless person you've adopted doing?

I took him a sandwich one day and he thanked me but declined the sandwich, saying he'd rather just have some money. So I am looking for a new homeless person to adopt.

" Can you persuade me"

Probably not. You are a libertarian so I might as well try to explain quantum physics to my dog as try to persuade you of the economic and psychological benefits of community.

I agree with you that communities can provide economic and psychological benefits.

I also believe that (to many people) churches provide these benefits, but I don't believe people should be forced to go to church.

Ricardo - what part of "false equivalence" do you not understand?

Probably the part where libertarians are dogs in the classroom.

To recap:

The charge was leveled that libertarians "lack a moral compass." My response was: no, libertarians care as much about morality as others, but they are reluctant to impose their moralities on people with different moralities. I asked why others felt comfortable doing this.

In response, I was told that I did not appreciate "the economic and psychological benefits of community." No, I replied: I value community very much. But I don't see the connection. Why do "the economic and psychological benefits of community" entitle me to coerce others, or entitle the community to coerce me?

Then, as an example, I suggested that churches form the bedrock of many communities, and yet even people who appreciate "the economic and psychological benefits of community" agree that church attendance should not be mandatory. But why not? I was told this was a "false equivalence." Well, okay, but I seem them as two sides of the same coin. If it's okay to coerce people for the benefit of the community, why isn't it okay to make people go to church?

My original point was that it is untrue that libertarians lack a moral compass. However, I do see why Joe Smith might have gotten that impression, because libertarians are reluctant to impose that compass on others. If Joe Smith had said "The problem with libertarians is that they are unwilling to impose their moral compasses on others," I would have agreed.

"Can you persuade me that (1) I have that right, and (2) I should exercise it?"

No. The argument is one of first principles and can't be decisively argued one way or the other on rational, consequentialist grounds.

You either believe we as humans have obligations to each other, or you don't. You either believe the strong have an obligation to help the weak, or you don't. And, you either believe that obligation overrides, to some arguable extent, the right to property, or you don't.

As a libertarian, your first principle is that the right to property is paramount, absolute, and sacrosanct, trumping all others. Within such a framework, there is no way to persuade you that you and others have not only a right, but an obligation to help the less fortunate. Therefore, to try is pointless.

This is the heart of the matter. Why is property sacrosanct?

"Our property is nothing but those goods, whose constant possession is establish'd by the laws of society; that is, by the laws of justice. Those, therefore, who make use of the words property, or right, or obligation, before they have explain'd the origin of justice, or even make use of them in that explication, are guilty of a very gross fallacy, and can never reason upon any solid foundation. A man's property is some object related to him. This relation is not natural, but moral, and founded on justice. Tis very preposterous, therefore, to imagine, that we can have any idea of property, without fully comprehending the nature of justice, and shewing its origin in the artifice and contrivance of man. The origin of justice explains that of property. The same artifice gives rise to both. " J.S. Mill

Who owns your life?

Clearly it is the community, as your "right to life" is meaningless outside of the framework of laws imposed by a state, right?

I agree that we as humans have obligations to each other. I do not think it follows that we have the right to force other people to fulfill those obligations.

I think property is important, but I think my first principle is the non-aggression principle. Neither you nor I have the right to force anybody to do anything.


The irony here is that your comment is very persuasive!

The only thing with which I disagree is that a libertarian's "first principle is that the right to property is paramount." I think it is fairer to say that (as Joshua says) a libertarian's first principle is usually non-aggression. But you're right: if non-aggression is really my first principle, I must stand by and watch injustice being done.

So I would soften it slightly and say that for me, non-aggression gets the benefit of the doubt. Unless it is clear to me that aggression is required, I think it should be avoided. For example, if X earns $100 more per year than Y, I would be loathe to use aggression to transfer $50 from X to Y. And I would certainly not say that we have "an obligation" to enforce this transfer.

But maybe $100 isn't the right number. Maybe if the number is $1,000,000,000, then there does exist such an obligation. I don't know. But failure to agree on a number does not constitute "lack of a moral compass," which was the original charge leveled against all libertarians. I would say that "first, do no harm" constitutes a moral compass, even if it is not one upon which we all agree.

Are there some things which you permissibly may possess, use, and give away, but which are wrong to buy and sell?>

Answering "no" does not seem like a very libertarian thesis to me. Why can't I contract with you that you can possess something of mine, but cannot alienate it? That's just a form of resale price maintenance, which I thought libertarians were in favour of.

I suspect a huge amount of the work to make this sound plausible will be done by narrowing the common-sense meanings of "possess" and "give away." Of course, Michael Sandel could then just agree with the thesis and narrow "possess" so that it doesn't apply to all the things he thinks shouldn't be sold.

The books that Brennan cites as oppositional to his thesis do not all appear to say what he thinks they say. On the other hand, ideological fights are more fun if you can vigorously whack a few straw men. That stuff goes everywhere! It totally shows how awesome you are.

Well, if you're right, it will get shot down in peer review.

Of course, the referees for the contract didn't agree with you, and none of the many professional philosophers I've presented this work to think I'm strawmanning anyone. But if it makes you feel better to pretend *I'm* the ideological one, enjoy.

Since you are here, I assume you are not really going to argue that whenever I have a right to use, I have a right to sell. No property rights system has ever worked that way. I can't sell my right to say I graduated from a particular university, or that I have a law degree. I can't necessarily sublease my apartment, or assign my rights under my employment contract, etc., etc. It would be a huge violation of contractual freedom to say that two consenting adults can't agree to transfer rights to use without transferring rights to alienate.

Similarly, why would you prohibit somebody from making it a condition of a gift (or even a sale) that the gift (or purchased good/right)can't be sold, but could be given? I can think of lots of reasons people might want to agree to such an arrangement, and I can't think of a good reason, libertarian or otherwise, to forbid them. I thought libertarians were in favour of resale price maintenance.

So, I think your whole argument is going to depend on what you mean by "possess". And I think any anti-commodification position could then just be restated as an anti-possession position (you can't "possess" your own kidney).

I'll give a shot a channelling Jason in reply, with apologies if I don't get it quite right.

Giving someone else your degree, or your apartment in violation of your lease, is wrong whether you do it for money or for free. The exchange of money is not problematic, but the act of fraud is.

I'm sure if we search our minds for every possible exception, we will find some number of exceptions.

But as an analytical approach when pondering certain problematics, I think it is interesting and complementary to various ethical frameworks we could choose.

So, to be absolutely clear, your position is that the thesis and argument of each of the books you explicitly linked to in your blurb can be accurately encapsulated in the statement, "Are there some things which you permissibly may possess, use, and give away, but which are wrong to buy and sell? This author says, 'no.'"

If the answer to my question is, "yes," then I disagree; I think you are oversimplifying the books in a way that reduces them to straw men. If the answer to my question is, "no," then, well, irony alert. Maybe you shouldn't be upset that someone would mischaracterize your position based on, you know, a blurb. That you posted on the internet. To promote your book.

I'm sure that your book makes very interesting, nuanced arguments. But I haven't read your book; I've read (and critiqued) the thing you gave to me to read: your blurb.

As a side note, waving around vague claims about "peer review" and "professional philosophers" is a bit . . . well, I think it speaks for itself. If you think that academic presses don't publish ideological work, or that peer reviewed books never contain unsophisticated characterizations of oppositional arguments, well, you aren't reading much academic work. Given that you have published several books, I'm unconvinced that you are actually that naive, which leads me to believe that the comment got under your skin. Fair enough. But you could have written that blurb without the hyperlinks to other people's work, and it would have lost nothing--and not drawn fire. My totally unsolicited advice: either don't be "that guy," or grow thick enough skin to not care what some random dude on the internet says. The middle road of throwing rocky blurbs from your glass house is unflattering.

Everything costs something, but there are hugely important differences in how you pay: e.g., prostitution v. marriage.

I love putting the acknowledgment up for sale, but Laurence Sterne beat them to that idea by several hundred years:

Maybe Brennan and Jaworski should hold an auction ...

Markets for drugs which have been classified as illicit and organ "donations" are two markets which immediately come to mind.

In the case of organ donations, I think there is a concern that poor people could be taken advantage of in times of desperation, but that this itself may constitute an argument for legal sales because a regulated market is less opaque than the underground one, and also comes with more secure protections for both the giving and receiving ends of the organ "donation".

In this case, their is a strong argument in favour of regulated commodification of something which many currently say should be giftable but not for sale (most notably kidneys).

Drugs which have been classified as illicit are generally viewed through a different analytical lens, because the assumption is that the seller is an unvirtuous low-life who sells products which damage the people who buy them (whereas in other cases they may also courageous dispensers of important medicines to treat debilitating symptoms of numerous conditions). However, the classification of drugs and related criminal sanction are done in a complete absence of careful consideration of costs and benefits of diverse strategies.

In this case, it is impossible for many people to evaluate whether there is an ethical difference between allowing people to possess the goods and to sell the goods because most available information can be identified as having sufficient bias or methodological weakness as to make the data and analyses essentially useless for scientific or social policy purposes.

But I think the general logic of "if you're allowed to have it, you should be able to sell it" makes sense enough to me. Interesting way to portray things ...

I would argue that the possession of piss-poor quality research on social and economic questions may not constitute a right to try to "sell" it as something legitimate when the author is aware of the flaws which would be addressed in higher quality and/or better funded research.

The answer depends on how you define the words used. Is a market efficient or is it just a definition of a transfer of some right. What is meant by inherent?

Markets are meaningless without a definition of private property. Property requires some collective decision on the elements of justice. To what extent you think natural justice exists.

If justice has no natural external source in the universe then there is no limit in how private property is defined. A market can exist only as much as property rights are allowed to be traded or sold.

Thus, any discussion of the statement "there are no inherent limits to markets" reduces to an argument about the justifications of private property which is a long covered question in philosophy.

Example: I am an all powerful King. I own every non-sentient piece of matter in the universe. I allow people to use certain property out of my grand beneficence. The rights flow from me and therefore cannot be traded or transferred without my positive consent. Therefore, no market can be said to exist in anything. This is not an inherent restriction on markets as much as a argument about where property rights come from.

As I quoted above...

"Our property is nothing but those goods, whose constant possession is establish'd by the laws of society; that is, by the laws of justice. Those, therefore, who make use of the words property, or right, or obligation, before they have explain'd the origin of justice, or even make use of them in that explication, are guilty of a very gross fallacy, and can never reason upon any solid foundation. A man's property is some object related to him. This relation is not natural, but moral, and founded on justice. Tis very preposterous, therefore, to imagine, that we can have any idea of property, without fully comprehending the nature of justice, and shewing its origin in the artifice and contrivance of man. The origin of justice explains that of property. The same artifice gives rise to both." J.S. Mill

This is the EXACT same basis as any statement made about markets. This is why the excerpt has to use the word "wrong" as it is inherently about what is justifiable.

From a very good David Rieff essay, A Global Culture (1994):
"(T)he genius of American popular culture resides precisely in the nihilism of its entrepreneurs and, finally, out of the society from whence they spring. There is a staunch refusal to admit that anything needs to be taken so seriously as to get in the way of its marketing, and a confidence that anything can be marketed."

The irony here is that the great fallacy of capitalism is that money itself is treated as a commodity, rather than a contract. It is an essentially public utility and we no more own those bills in our pocket than we own the section of road we are driving on. If we understood it mostly serves the interests of those who control this medium for us to think of it as our property, we would be far more careful what intrinsic value we draw from the community and the environment to trade in it.

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