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Troy Jollimore on Markets and Morality
Posted on Jul 22, 2010
“With the collapse of communism, markets and the political theories that advocate expanding the market have been enjoying a considerable resurgence,” writes Stanford University professor Debra Satz in her new book, “Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets.” “Markets are not only spreading across the globe, but they are also extending to new domains, such as environmental pollution. For many people market institutions are assuming the role of an all-purpose remedy for the defects of the cumbersome government bureaucracies of the Western world, the poverty of the Southern world, and the coercive state control of the planned economies. This remains true despite the recent economic downturn.”
Indeed, the market’s stock has perhaps never been higher, and the idea that the voluntary exchange of goods between free individuals might answer every significant economic, social and even ethical question has perhaps never been more widely accepted. But in the midst of all this celebration of the market’s virtues—and let us admit, as Satz is perfectly willing to admit, that a market can indeed be a very efficient and effective means of coordinating complicated activities among a large group of individuals with differing agendas—there are also some reasons for concern. Efficient, after all, does not necessarily imply admirable or just (or even, on occasion, tolerable). Moreover, technological advances have made available types of markets that were not possible before. Fertile women can now rent out their wombs for nine months and become surrogate mothers. And while it is not yet legal in this country for individuals to sell their kidneys and other bodily organs to those who need them, such a day may not be far off.
Indeed, given the current shortage of healthy organs, the creation of a market for them might seem not only inevitable but eminently sensible. And there is also, of course, the moral argument for allowing such sales: My kidneys are mine (if not, then whose are they?), and the fact that something is mine gives me certain rights over it, including, ordinarily, the right to sell it to someone else at a price that we both agree on. This argument forms the core of the standard libertarian explanation of why we should have free markets in organs, in surrogate motherhood, in prostitution and, indeed, in pretty much everything.
Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets
By Debra Satz
Oxford University Press, 264 pages
Is it true, though, that the right to something must always include the right to freely exchange it? Take what is perhaps the most compelling apparent counter-example, that of vote-buying. I suppose we could imagine a supremely committed libertarian who would argue, in Robert Nozick’s memorable phrase, that government ought not to prohibit “capitalist acts between consenting adults”—not even when what is for sale is an individual’s right to vote in an election. But it would be difficult, one suspects, to find very many people who would accept this. Nearly all of us understand that the very functioning of a democracy depends on the powerful and wealthy not having the ability simply to buy their way into the country’s political offices—at least not in so blatant a manner.
Vote-selling, then, is a fairly easy and noncontroversial case of a market that ought not to be permitted. But where else should the market not go? The most controversial cases discussed by Satz are probably those of surrogate motherhood, which is currently permitted in the U.S., and organ selling, which is not. In contrast to the vote-selling case, allowing a market to operate in either of these contexts might not seem inherently anti-democratic. The popular perception, indeed, is that if restricting markets in such goods is justifiable, it is so because to put such goods on the market is to value them in the wrong way: It degrades or demeans a womb or kidney to offer cash for the use of it.
But of course this reason for prohibiting such markets meets strong opposition from the libertarian, who will simply ask: Shouldn’t it be up to the person who owns the good in question whether or not offering it up in exchange for cash is appropriate? If an individual agrees that kidneys are sacred, in a way that makes such exchanges inappropriate, then she need not offer her own kidneys for sale. But what right do we have to impose our own value judgments on others?
Satz’s approach is quite different, and renders the cases of surrogate motherhood and organ sale much closer to the vote-selling case. On her view, what all or nearly all “noxious” markets have in common is that they undermine the ideal of equal standing between persons, or of equal democratic citizenship:
Particularly worrisome, in terms of equality concerns, are exchanges in which one of the parties is in a position to exploit the “underlying extreme vulnerabilities” of the other:
Such vulnerabilities are morally salient in, for instance, the organ case: According to many people, Satz writes, “a kidney sale is objectionable because it is a paradigmatic desperate exchange, an exchange no one would ever make unless faced with no reasonable alternative.” Sales of this kind are objectionable on the individual level, but the objections multiply when one considers the general social context. “It has been keenly noted that international organ markets transfer organs from poor to rich, third world to first world, female to male, and nonwhite to white.” (One might be reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go”—a comparison explicitly drawn by Satz—which depicts the plight of a subclass of human clones grown solely so that their organs can be harvested for the benefit of the ailing wealthy.)
Organ sales also tend to involve another characteristic feature of objectionable markets, weak agency, which in Satz’s usage most often indicates that one of the transacting parties is significantly under-informed. Many potential organ sellers in India, for instance, are quite unaware of the results of a recent study of kidney sellers in that country: Over 86 percent of participants experienced a substantial decline in health following their surgery, and 79 percent said they regretted the decision to sell their kidneys. And even if one knows those facts, imagination can fail us: It is hard to anticipate, perhaps, what it is like to have a kidney surgically removed and to live without it.
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