Sunday, May 01, 2016

Review: Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests

Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests by Jason F. Brennan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Markets Without Limits is a clear philosophical defense of the claim that there are no inherent limits to markets. What the authors Brennan and Jaworski (B&J) mean by this is that “if you may do it for free, then you may do it for money” (10). So, if you may possess water for free, you may also sell it. If you may have sex without paying for it, you may also buy it. Additionally, since you may not possess child pornography, you may not sell or buy it either. Since you may not murder for free, you may not murder for a price. These are not limits on the markets per se. They are limits on human behavior irrespective of markets.

The book is clear in two important ways. First, stylistically, it is written in a straightforward way. The chapters are relatively short: making them more focused and to the point. There is little in the way of jargon – and they make an effort to define carefully unavoidable technical verbiage.

Second, they make great effort to make sure that the arguments they are criticizing or advancing are presented as clearly and as logically as possible. I found myself frequently raising a concern or possible objection in the margins only to have that concern or objection discussed in the next paragraph or section. It got a little eerie at times—as if they were reading my mind!

They do a great job of presenting the anti-commodification arguments clearly and fairly. In fact, I think they do a better job of making the anti-commodification case than most of the anti-commodification theorists themselves. Their broad topology of the different criticisms helps to clarify and focus the arguments for these points and their criticisms.

B&J explicitly take a non-foundationalist approach; that is, they do not tie or base their arguments on prior moral or political commitments. They want their argument to work with whatever commitments with which the reader might start. There is rhetorical value in this method: you don’t get bogged down in questions of ethical theory, etc. You get to start by accepting (at least hypothetically) the commitments of your theoretical opponent and claim that you still get to your conclusions. The downside is that you can sometimes seem to accept too much; or that your theory becomes too detached from its foundations. Indeed, it can distract you from actually making the case from its foundations. B&J get close to these dangers at times, but seem to skate by without cross over.

They make an important – and in retrospect obvious – distinction between anti-commodification and business ethics. Anti-commodification, they argue, is the view that there are goods, services, etc., that people may rightly possess or use in some manner outside of a market, but for which it would be wrong to sell or buy. That is, there are things that you may do for free, but you may not do for money. This view is, broadly, that the market takes something that was permissible but then in virtue of being put in a market turns it into something impermissible. This is the view B&J are challenging.

They differentiate this view from business ethics. Business ethics is about the right and wrong ways to engage in markets. They accept that there are right and wrong ways to sell things; that there very well could be and often are legitimate time, place, and manner restrictions on individual markets. These are not inherent limits to markets per se; they are only limitations on a specific manner that something is being sold. The essence of B&J’s argument is that anti-commodification theorists have to show that there is no time, place, or manner to sell or buy the good or service, not just that there is a time, place or manner in which it would be wrong to sell or buy the good or service.

Often in discussions of the legitimacy of markets, this difference between commodification and business ethics gets confused and anti-commodification theorists make a business ethics point (X shouldn’t be sold in this way) but take themselves for having made an anti-commodification point (X shouldn’t be sold, period.). B&J show that these are different points: they require different arguments and different evidence. In some ways, if they are right about this difference (and I think they are), then anti-commodification arguments start to look pretty superficial. The real (and interesting) ethical issues are in the business ethics domain.

I do wonder, though, how effective this book and its arguments will be against the anti-commodificationists. I can easily see them saying, ok fine. So there are no inherent limits to markets, but there are lots and lots of incidental limits. So many, they might argue, that the practical difference between inherent and incidental gets lost. I think B&J would respond by saying; so what? The argument here is just that there are no inherent limits. If that point is won, then we can move on to the different incidental limits (and into Business Ethics). But they will have shown (and the anti-commodification theorists will have to have acknowledged) that markets in themselves are not corrupting, evil, toxic, or what not. And if B&J’s book does that, then it is will indeed be a monumentally important book.

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