“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.

book cover

Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets

By Debra Satz

Oxford University Press, 264 pages

Buy the book

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?

To see long excerpts from “Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale,” click here and go to Google Books.

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:

A market exchange based in desperation, humiliation, or begging or whose terms involve bondage or servitude is not an exchange between equals. On my view, lurking behind many, if not all, noxious markets are problems relating to the standing of the parties before, during, and after the process of exchange.

I will also argue in this chapter that some markets are noxious and need to be blocked or severely constrained if the parties are to be equals in a particular sense, as citizens in a democracy. […] As I see it, a major problem with noxious markets is not that they represent inferior ways of valuing goods (as those who link the limits of markets to social meanings claim) but that they undermine the conditions that people need if they are to relate as equals.

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:

[W]hen a desperately poor person agrees to part with an asset at a fire sale price, even if the exchange improves his well-being we are rightly concerned with the fact that his circumstances made him willing to accept an offer for his asset that no one with a decent alternative would ever accept. When a person enters a contract from a position of extreme vulnerability he is likely to agree to almost any terms that are offered.

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. 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:

book cover

Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets

By Debra Satz

Oxford University Press, 264 pages

Buy the book

Human beings are malleable in a way that goods such as apples are not. We do not usually need to worry about the noneconomic effects of a market on the apples exchanged, but we do need to worry about whether a particular kind of market produces or supports passivity, alienation, or ruthless egoism. Labor markets may be structured so as to accustom people to being pushed around and managed by others. Widespread markets in women’s reproductive or sexual capacities (including quid pro quo sexual harassment contracts) might amplify gender inequalities by entrenching and deepening negative stereotypes about women. Unregulated education markets are compatible with children being treated as and raised as servile dependents. We need to pay special attention to cases like these, for they pose potential threats to the stable reproduction of democratic citizenship over time.

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.

Troy Jollimore is associate professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico. His book “Tom Thomson in Purgatory” won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 2006.

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