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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

If You May Do It for Free, You May Do It for Money

Markets don't transform good things into bad

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. …

We 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.
  2. 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 clarify 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 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.

This excerpt is extracted from Peter Jaworski and Jason Brennan’s new book Markets without Limits, and first appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

  • Jason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair at Georgetown University. He blogs regularly at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
  • Peter Martin Jaworski is an Assistant Teaching Professor teaching business ethics at Georgetown University. He is a Senior Fellow with the Canadian Constitution Foundation, and a Director of the Institute for Liberal Studies. He has also been a Visiting Research Professor at Brown University.