November 23, 2014
Troy Jollimore on Markets and Morality
Posted on Jul 22, 2010
Such failures of imagination, and other manifestations of weak agency, are significant in other objectionable markets as well. Some have objected to surrogate motherhood, for instance, on the basis that some women will be unable to truly anticipate the experience of pregnancy, and most women—unless they have done it before—will be unable to imagine how they will feel about giving up a baby they have carried to term. Others argue that contract pregnancies express a defective attitude toward either the baby (by turning babies into commodities) or toward women’s reproductive capacities: While these things are indeed valuable, they ought not to be valued in the same manner as we value paradigmatic market-exchanged goods.
Satz eschews the latter argument, since she wants to avoid controversial claims about which goods ought to be valued in which ways. Instead she offers an argument that relies on empirical claims about the background conditions against which such exchanges will, in the real world, take place; in particular, assumptions about the causes and effects of pervasive gender inequality. “The problem with commodifying women’s reproductive labor is not that it degrades the special nature of reproductive labor or alienates women from a core part of their identities, but that it reinforces (to the extent that it does) a traditional gender-hierarchical division of labor.” Pregnancy contracts, after all, give wealthy persons “increased access to and control over women’s bodies and sexuality” and reinforce “negative stereotypes about women as ‘baby machines.’ ”
As feminist scholars have recognized for decades, such negative stereotypes exert pressure on women and other vulnerable groups from the outside, but are perhaps even more harmful to the extent that they are internalized. If women themselves come to see themselves largely as “baby machines,” they are all the more likely to accept not only pregnancy contracts but worse forms of treatment. Satz is attentive throughout to the potential of certain sorts of markets to influence our beliefs, desires and self-conceptions. “Markets not only allocate resources among different uses and distribute income among different people, but particular markets also shape our politics and culture, even our identities.” Labor markets, in particular, raise deep and difficult issues by virtue of their ability both to create and reinforce massive power differentials and to influence the very preferences of the people who engage in them:
Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets
By Debra Satz
Oxford University Press, 264 pages
Recent economists have tended to take people’s interests and preferences simply as given, and to ignore the labor market’s role in shaping them. This error, Satz writes, is in sharp contrast to the more discerning treatment given to the question by Adam Smith’s generation of political economists—a group of thinkers that was concerned not just with questions of economic efficiency, but with those of economic morality as well. Smith’s thinking in particular turns out to have been somewhat more attuned to subtle economic realities than popular accounts of it would lead one to expect. For one thing, Smith supported regulating wages in a way that benefited workers: “Whenever the regulation … is in favor of the workmen,” he wrote, “it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favor of the masters.” He also strongly supported public education and regulation to prevent usury by limiting interest rates for loans, and was deeply concerned about the potential for labor markets to influence, if not warp, the rational capacities of workers forced to accept intellectually non-demanding employment. This is not to deny that Smith, the inventor of the concept of the “Invisible Hand” that pushed free exchangers inexorably to optimal outcomes, was, on the whole, pro-market; it is only to point out what level of simplification was needed to make him into the poster child for free market capitalism that he has become.
In addition to the examples I have mentioned, Satz addresses a chapter each to prostitution, child labor, and “voluntary slavery” (i.e. long-term labor contracts which in practice frequently turn out to be lifelong labor contracts, due to the difficulty of paying them off). I was slightly disappointed that she did not turn her attention to the question of carbon emissions markets, not only because of the timeliness of that issue, but because it is a more difficult and hence more interesting question to answer than that of, say, child labor or voluntary slavery (who is going to support those?).
Satz’s main contention—that the objection to noxious markets is best understood in terms of the threat they pose to the equal standing of individuals—turns out to be at least fairly plausible, and it is well argued for here. That said, I am not entirely convinced of her approach to each particular case. With respect to pregnancy contracts, for instance, she is probably right that the availability and perceived legitimacy of such arrangements helps to reinforce certain negative stereotypes about women, but is this really enough of a reason to place strong regulatory limits on them? Lots of things in our society reinforce negative stereotypes about women and other minority groups in much more direct ways: Hollywood movies, for instance. Yet these are for the most part tolerated. In the case of surrogate motherhood I suspect that, while there may be good reason to regulate or even ban such contracts, this reason may have less to do with broad worries about social perceptions of gender and more to do with the worry that individual participants—in particular, the surrogates—will be exploited.
But this is a matter of emphasis, nothing more. “Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale” is intelligent, insightful and on the whole convincing, and even those readers who already agree with most of Satz’s conclusions regarding the justifiability and permissibility of particular sorts of markets will learn from it. I hope, though, that it also finds its way into the hands of at least some of those who have come to regard unregulated markets as a panacea for society’s ills. It may not, in the end, change their minds, but it should at least provoke them to a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the issues involved. And they might learn something about Adam Smith, too.
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