Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski think that anything you’re allowed to do for free, you should be able to do for money. That means things like buying and selling kidneys, children, sex, grades; even waiting in line. Are they right?
What should you be able to buy and sell? What does it mean to pay someone for something?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Brennan and Jaworski’s book is Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests (2015).
Markets without Limits is partially a response to this book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2013) by Michael J. Sandel.
One of our very first Free Thoughts podcast episodes was with James Stacey Taylor on this very same topic.
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today are Georgetown University professors Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski. They’re the authors of “Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests”. Welcome to Free Thoughts. I want to begin by asking a question about experts on this topic. It’s something my wife and I have argued about. I’ve asked it several times and always been told the answer is “no”, but can I [00:00:30] sell my children?
Peter Jaworski: Jay, why don’t you field this?
Jason Brennan: That wasn’t the first question I thought I was going to get. Here’s our official view. You can’t have property rights in children, per se, so you can’t own a child the way you can own say a cat or a guitar or a microphone. However, our view is something like this: There are a set of norms that determine who is eligible to adopt a child. Pedophiles shouldn’t get [00:01:00] children, serial killers shouldn’t get children, and perhaps some other people shouldn’t get children as well. Those norms restrict how you can distribute children for free. I shouldn’t just give out my kids to a pedophile. Then our view, once you have those constraints in place, then it’s fine to sell off the right to adopt the child within those constraints.
Anyone who can adopt a child for free should be able to adopt a child for money. In fact, if you look at the empirical literature on this, there’s reasons to think that if we had markets in adoption, [00:01:30] that that would actually lead to better outcomes for the children and for others as well.
Trevor Burrus: There’d be markets in parental rights. There wouldn’t necessarily be markets in people.
Jason Brennan: Right. You’re not actually selling the child per se. What you’re selling is the right to adopt a child subject to the constraint that you’re eligible to have a kid in the first place.
Trevor Burrus: I can’t buy you then?
Jason Brennan: The whole point of the book is that I am for sale, and I thought that was pretty clear. I can be sold, and I have a price. It’s a high price. That’s all.
Trevor Burrus: You did sell the acknowledgements. [00:02:00] What was it? You sold the-
Peter Jaworski: Yeah, we sold the acknowledgements of the book. We also sold the … What’s the thing at the beginning?
Jason Brennan: The dedication.
Trevor Burrus: The dedication.
Peter Jaworski: The dedication was bought by the Business Ethics Journal Review, Chris MacDonald, Alexei Marcoux.
Trevor Burrus: Who did they dedicate it to?
Jason Brennan: To the readers of the Business Ethics Journal Review.
Aaron Powell: Did your publisher have any problem with you doing that?
Jason Brennan: No, he liked it. He thought it was a fun publicity stunt. We even talked about having advertisements and marketing or commodifying the book even further, but we decided [00:02:30] the joke would go stale. They did at one point say though, “If you really are going to raise a huge amount of money on commodifying it and making all sorts of pictures and things, then you probably should share some of that money with us.” We didn’t go that far, so we got to keep it all for ourselves. We spent all of the money on frivolous things. We didn’t donate it to children or anything like that.
Peter Jaworski: That was part of it-
Trevor Burrus: You say that like we should be … “We didn’t donate it to children or anything. We just spent it on frivolous things.”
Peter Jaworski: On metal. We were supposed to spend it on death metal.
Jason Brennan: We made a promise that it wasn’t going to charity or something, so it really was commodification [00:03:00] for frivolous reasons rather than out of a sense of nobility.
Peter Jaworski: We also had categories. We had a gold level and then a platinum level. Then also Daniel Silvermint, a philosophy professor friend of both of ours, he put up a lot of money to make the highest level the “Silvermint Tier.”
Trevor Burrus: This is like the Kennedy Center wall basically?
Peter Jaworski: That’s what it was. Yeah. We did that with the book. It was fantastic.
Aaron Powell: Why were some people on there multiple times?
Jason Brennan: They paid multiple times. They thought [00:03:30] it would be funny if they paid $5.00 to have their name mentioned five times.
Peter Jaworski: They did. You could get in with just a dollar. One dollar and your name goes in the book.
Jason Brennan: We raised over $1,000 doing that. It was pretty good. We probably charged too little actually. In retrospect, given how many people jumped on board, we should’ve charged a higher price.
Peter Jaworski: We should’ve, yeah, but there wasn’t really a market in book acknowledgements at the time. We didn’t have a standard. We didn’t have a shadow market or something like that. We had to create one on our own.
Trevor Burrus: [00:04:00] Was there any pushback or any negative responses to selling? Not from your publisher, but just from other people?
Jason Brennan: There was a philosophical critique that appeared on some blog or something, and they said, “I’m not really sure if it metaphysically counts as a dedication if you sell it, because a dedication is sort of, by necessity, sincere, and so you can’t really sell the dedication.” Then people were debating the metaphysics of dedications. Fair enough. I don’t really buy that view. If you want to call it a smedication or something, I think [00:04:30] the people who purchased it were not particularly upset about that.
Peter Jaworski: There was a discussion on the Daily News Philosophy Blog about this, but most people thought it was all tongue-in-cheek. It was good fun. Nobody’s confused that our acknowledgements are sincere acknowledgments. Everybody understands that people just paid for those acknowledgements, so it was good fun.
Aaron Powell: I just wondered, because I guess my name appears as a paid acknowledgement in a lot of books. It’s a standard thing on Kickstarter to you list everyone who backed the book. [00:05:00] It says, “Thank you to all of these people.”
Trevor Burrus: A little bit different, but you were putting … Obviously, your book to get to the heart of it, there has been a lot of people who’ve written books in the last I would say 10, 15 years maybe about how certain things shouldn’t be bought and sold. We opened up by talking about children or parental rights, but of course organs and a bunch of things we can get to. What was the state of that debate as you saw it before when you [00:05:30] guys started talking about what your book would contribute?
Jason Brennan: Every couple years someone comes out with a book on why you shouldn’t be allowed to sell certain things. Fortunately, all those people agree you should be able to sell books about what should be for sale.
A few of them, such as Benjamin Barber despite more or less being a communist and Michael Sandel, have actually made quite a lot of money on these books. Pretty much everyone says things like, “The market is okay. It’s a useful tool, but the problem with the market is it tends to spread like pigweed. For moral reasons, we have to try to constrain [00:06:00] its scope.” They come up with a list of objections or a number of different objections to why the market shouldn’t be allowed to spread here and there.
We read that, and we thought their arguments weren’t very good. Their evidence wasn’t very good, and the arguments weren’t satisfactory. We thought, “You know what this debate could use is like a big fat dose of truth?” We got paid to do it, which is even better.
Peter Jaworski: That’s right. Actually one of the bigger criticisms that we had of most of those books is that they didn’t make contact with the empirical literature. One of the discoveries early on when Jay and I were working on the book [00:06:30] is Viviana Zelizer. She’s a sociologists. She’s Chair of the sociology department at Princeton.
She’s written a number of books on the meaning of money. “The Purchase of Intimacy” is a title of one of her books. You had somebody, in particular both Jay and I were teaching Michael Sandel’s book and also some chapters of his, and Michael Sandel talks about being able to buy and sell intimacy, being able to buy and sell friendship. He also [00:07:00] talks about what money means. What does it mean when I pay somebody to do something? It’s this magical thing. It has this meaning. He sits in his chair, and he thinks about it.
I was talking to Jay about this, and after finding Viviana Zelizer, I was like, “Here is somebody who has done the research. Here’s somebody who has looked at the meaning of money in different contexts and around the world, and she’s come to radically different conclusions about what people in general think is the meaning [00:07:30] of money. Why not include that in the book, and why don’t we just make contact with the empirical literature in general?” Michael Sandel’s siting in his chair just intuiting, “Oh, here’s what this means.” That’s not good enough.
Trevor Burrus: What is the basic argument of the book? I’m sure people are thinking here, “You can’t buy love. There are just things that you can’t really buy.” If you’re saying, “Oh, everything is for sale,” what is the basic argument?
Jason Brennan: The basic thesis, [00:08:00] not the argument per se, but the thesis is anything you can do for free, you can do for money. There’s some way of being able to do it for money. There are things you can’t buy and sell such as child pornography or slaves or assassination services or something, because you shouldn’t be doing those things period. If I gave you a gift of slaves, that would be wrong. Otherwise, if you can do it for free, then it is something that is eligible to be bought and sold. Then our basic structured argue for that is twofold.
One is to say, “Usually when [00:08:30] people have a complaint about a market, they’re not complaining about the commodification per se. They’re complaining about a particular way it’s being bought and sold. We can revise the way it’s being bought and sold, and that will change the problem.”
For example, Elizabeth Anderson at the University of Michigan complains about surrogacy markets and claims that they’re immoral. She has a bunch of complaints about brokers and the nature of the contract, but my friends Jason and Ben recently purchased a surrogate to carry a baby for them. They didn’t have a contract like that. They didn’t have a broker. It doesn’t seem like she has a complaint about their [00:09:00] particular market per se.
The other strategy is to just list and categorize every single objection that the others have come up with. We come up with a classification of them, and then just systematically take them down.
Trevor Burrus: I’ve read Sandel’s book, and it could use some rigor. That’s part of the thing too. It’s what money can’t buy, I believe, and it’s not really a philosophy book. Breaking it down to a taxonomy of … He’s just sort of say, “I don’t like that,” but why is he saying, “I don’t like [00:09:30] that”? What are some of the things that Sandel says that you shouldn’t be able to buy? It’s a pretty amazing list. Standing in line.
Peter Jaworski: Yeah. He has standing in line, selling the billboard at Yankee Stadium. He doesn’t like that.
Jason Brennan: The name of the stadium.
Peter Jaworski: The name of the stadium. He doesn’t like that, so I guess [crosstalk 00:09:48].
Jason Brennan: Autographed copies of your baseball cards. Tickets for free events at the park.
Peter Jaworski: The mixture of sacred sports. Baseball.
Jason Brennan: Filthy lucre.
Trevor Burrus: Sacred [00:10:00] sports, of course. I would never do that for money.
Peter Jaworski: Kidneys. Some of the important things are kidneys, blood, bone marrow. Just standard things like that. You can’t buy and sell sex, or you shouldn’t be allowed to buy and sell sex, friendship, those things as well. There’s an enormous list. It would be much better if Michael Sandel had offered a categorization, a good categorization of the kinds of things that shouldn’t be bought and sold. He doesn’t offer it, and so [00:10:30] I think for most readers … When you’re reading his book, it’s actually a pleasure to read. I recommend that people go ahead and pick up his book and read through it. When you’re reading it, he has these amazing anecdotes. This, “Here’s a story,” and, “Did you know that you can buy a wedding speech by this Wednesday?”
Jason Brennan: My goodness. That’s so horrible.
Trevor Burrus: I’m shocked. This is my shocked face.
Peter Jaworski: Since most of the examples that he gives are things that the reader and most people are unfamiliar with, you get this kind [00:11:00] of initial surprise. Like, “Oh, you can buy a wedding speech? Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Probably you shouldn’t be allowed to do that.” Since people have those initial intuitions, they don’t think through the case enough. Michael Sandel can give you a series of these anecdotes, and then by the end you’re like, “You’re right Michael. The scope of the market is overly broad. It’s taking over too much of the important things in life, and so maybe it should be restrained.”
Jason Brennan: Here restrained means it’s not necessarily illegal, but just it’s [00:11:30] morally wrong to participate in it. Many of the people that we’re arguing against, they’ll say things like, “It’s always morally wrong to buy sex, but nevertheless prostitution should be legal the way it is in Germany.” It be clear, we’re talking about the morality, not the legality.
Aaron Powell: That gets at the question I was just going ask, because there’s a number of ways to look at “shouldn’t”. I wanted to see how that played out in here. It’s possible to say like, “It’s fine to buy this. You shouldn’t be able to buy it, but we can’t make [00:12:00] it illegal”? That’s okay?
Jason Brennan: Yeah.
Aaron Powell: When you say it’s permissible, you say, “Anything that we could exchange for free, it’s permissible to exchange for money,” do you mean permissible in the sense that you shouldn’t be prohibited, it would be wrong to prohibit you, or that there’s nothing morally problematic about it? Are there situations where adding money makes it maybe not as good, but it doesn’t rise to the level of impermissibility?
Jason Brennan: We’re saying that it’s not morally wrong to sell it. It’s not about the law per [00:12:30] se. For that respect, it’s, in a sense, not a libertarian book despite what people might say about it, because you could be a radical leftist and agree with everything you say. You should be like, “Yeah, all this stuff should be in the market, but it should be heavily regulated.” That’s compatible with our view. Deborah Sachs actually might think that. That might be her position. She might actually be on our side. Then you could be a hardcore, conservative libertarian where you’re like, “You know, no one should be forbidden from buying and selling this stuff, but I actually think markets and evil and people shouldn’t engage [00:13:00] in them. Nevertheless, they should be legal even though people shouldn’t do it.” No one holds that position, but you could.
Peter Jaworski: Nice illustration of this point is I gave a talk at Brigham Young University on “Markets Without Limits”, and everybody in that room was a Mormon. If you’ll recall, our thesis is “If it’s permissible to have, exchange, do or possess for free, then it’s permissible to do all of those things” we say “for money”, but that’s a slogan version. [00:13:30] Really the longer version is like, “It would be permissible to have a market of some sort, of some description, in that item.”
I was giving this talk at Brigham Young, and the topic of prostitution came up. I said, “Look, here’s the real question: Is it permissible for someone to have sex with a stranger for free? Is that permissible?” The people in the room were like, “Wait a second. No, no, no. You need to jump through these hoops in order to have sex with somebody. There are all these hoops.” [00:14:00] It wouldn’t be permissible to have sex with a stranger for free, and so it follows that on their view it wouldn’t be permissible to have a market of any description in that kind of service.
Trevor Burrus: That fits within the thesis. If you have a morality that says, “Casual sex, anonymous sex, is wrong,” then it makes sense that you would think it also can’t be sold.
Peter Jaworski: Think of our book of part one of a much longer series [00:14:30] of books defending the market. Here is a bunch of people who think there are these inherent limits to markets. They’re like, “Markets make good things bad or they make bad things good.” Jay and I are saying, “No. The market is neutral. There is no introduction of immorality or improvement.” It’s not like the market makes things better, the particular exchanges, and the market doesn’t make things worse. What makes it better or worse … You might think, for example, [00:15:00] that a market introduces incentives that weren’t there already. In the abstract you can imagine suppose that somebody exchanged a particular item with the same incentives except remove the market here. If that’s okay, then it’s okay to have it on the market. That’s kind of the central point. Part two would be the more aggressive, “We want to defend prostitution.” That would be part two or even maybe part three.
Trevor Burrus: I want to get on that specific trading point. [00:15:30] Is the trading a market, or is it just like … Some people are okay with trading, because you brought up trading a commodity. Is that what kind of market you’re talking about?
Jason Brennan: Yeah. One of the problems we had to deal with is what counts as a market. We basically do a critic’s choice kind of issue here. We say, “When we’re arguing against people, there’s reasonable disagreement on exactly what we’re going to use the word market to refer to, what we’re going to call an exchange, what we’re going to call commodification.” We pretty much let the person we’re arguing with at that moment or at that page define it [00:16:00] their way. Then we show their argument doesn’t work on their own terms. Really, we don’t have to stick to any particular definition of a market that might be contentious, because we can win either way.
Peter Jaworski: We do shift the ground like that, but we do also offer a definition of the market, which is the voluntary exchange of anything for valuable consideration.
Aaron Powell: That then is a bit different from the specifics of bringing money in, because that definition of the market doesn’t require any sort of money. I’m curious about the role that money plays in [00:16:30] the thinking about these issues. There does seem to be people get turned off specifically by bringing money into, but it seems like for a lot of these, say the organ sales, it seems like the problem is more like, these people, the reason that they’re buying or selling this stuff is bad reasons or reasons that we shouldn’t endorse. They’re acting out of desperation. What we’re actually rejecting is exchanges for bad reasons. The money is just a way to grease the wheels of those exchanges, [00:17:00] to operationalize them, make them easier to engage in. Is money doing extra work on top of that?
Jason Brennan: A couple points. One is on that particular objection that people have, “The only reason you’re willing to do this is because you’re so desperate.” Here’s the heavy-handed thing I believe. If you see people who are doing something out of desperation and all you do is stop them from doing it, you’re a really, really evil person. What the hell is wrong with you? It’s like, by hypothesis, [00:17:30] this person is horrifically desperate and they’re doing that, and it’s their best option. You took it away. God, how awful are you?
Trevor Burrus: It’s like someone’s drowning in a pool and they’re reaching for something out of desperation, and you stop them from doing that?
Jason Brennan: That’s what you do. You are the scum of the earth.
Aaron Powell: Aren’t you just stopping them from digging themselves deeper? They’re so desperate that this looks like a good option, but it’s only going to make them worse off so you’re really helping them.
Jason Brennan: If you actually knew that were the case, then maybe you’d have an argument, but most of the time they admit that, “No, no, this is their best option, but [00:18:00] it’s still wrong so we shouldn’t do it.” Going back to the questions of the meaning of money and what is money. People do often focus on money per se, not just the exchange of other goods. I think it’s because there is a view about what money means. People say things like, “There’s this Western perspective on money, where money is impersonal. To put a price on something is to declare it to have purely instrumental value. It’s to say that it’s fungible with everything else of the same value.” When you read the books on this, everyone says, “No, no. When you put a price on this, you’re saying that [00:18:30] adopting a child is just equivalent in value to 2,000 packs of spearmint gum.”
Therefore, by putting a price on something, you’re degrading it because you’re saying is value is instrumental and can be exchanged perfecting with no loss with anything else of the same monetary value. That’s why Peter brought up Viviana Zelizer. It really turns out that this perspective on money, this way of imputing an impersonal, utilitarian, arms-length, fungible [00:19:00] kind of attitude towards money is a recent Western perspective. It is not the universal perspective of money. Money does not have to mean that. We could think of it as having a different kind of thing.
For example, Sandel really gets upset about the idea of giving impersonal gifts versus personal gifts. A personal gift would be something like I once had a girlfriend of Polish descent, and I knew she really liked that. She saw this Polish Barbie, and I saved it for Christmas and gave it to her six months later. She was so pleased. Look at how nice it is because I know [00:19:30] about her preferences and so on? Whereas, if I’d just given her $60.00 or whatever, that would be impersonal.
Aaron Powell: With a nice card that said, “Here, there’s a Polish Barbie. Go buy it.”
Jason Brennan: Yeah, or, “Go buy whatever else you want.”
Trevor Burrus: Isn’t the sixth wedding anniversary a $100.00 bill? Isn’t that traditional tin, paper, wood, just cash?
Jason Brennan: Around the world, you actually see people that, to give a cash gift, is seen as just as thoughtful or even more thoughtful than giving a non-cash gift. In fact, even in the United States in the 1800’s, cash gifts were seen as especially thoughtful and non-cash gifts were not. [00:20:00] This is a contingent social construct.
It’s meaning that we have placed on the good. The meaning is not there. When we realize that the meaning is something we’ve placed on the good, we can start asking, “Is this practice, this practice of imputing meaning this way, a good practice or a bad practice?”
Peter Jaworski: That’s right. It’s interesting. In my own case, I happen to be Polish since we’re talking about Poland. My grand-parents on both sides, on both my mom’s side and my dad’s side, they used to give my sister [00:20:30] and I cash gifts when we would visit in Poland. For us, it was extra-special because it was always US dollars. It’s not the same as just a gift of cash, but that’s part of what made me think, “It was deeply meaningful for them to have saved up $50.00 and then to give it to us.” Then a friend of mine, [Map 00:20:53], often he wrote down on a dollar bill, he was like, “blue jays”, because that’s something that I like. He wrote down something that I liked [00:21:00] on a gift for me, namely a US dollar, and he handed it to me. Notice, it communicates something personal. It’s like, “I know about you,” but we’ve skipped all the nonsense where we’ve got to purchase the gift that’s thoughtful. Why don’t I just write it down on the dollar bill? I still have that dollar bill. I haven’t spent it, so I obviously think that’s special.
Aaron Powell: Even if this way that we think about money is social construct, it’s not [00:21:30] necessary, it’s historically contingent, it wasn’t always that way, so many of the objections to commodification are about, “Commodifying this clashes with our values. It’s sends the wrong message. It has different meaning.” Those themselves are all social constructs. Isn’t to some extent it’s like saying, “In a world where our values aren’t what they actually are, then money shouldn’t have this thing, but human [00:22:00] values or Western values or United States values are what they are, so within this value system money has these problems”?
Jason Brennan: We’re not pushing for relativism all the way down. If you’re going to have a debate about what’s right and wrong, you’re presupposing that there’s some sort of truth to the matter that’s not just mere opinion.
We are relativist about or social constructivists about are things like the meaning that we attach to certain actions. People will say things like, “The market in this good, even if it doesn’t hurt anybody, even if it doesn’t exploit anybody, even if it doesn’t violate anybody’s rights to lead to a misallocation [00:22:30] of resource, or have any other real moral problem, is wrong because of what it expresses.” In that case, we can go, “Look, it looks like what it expresses is merely a social construct.” Now we can ask whether it’s a good one.
Take the following case. Suppose we learn that, right now it’s a social construct that when we say, “Go to Hell,” that expresses contempt. If we were to discover that there’s this weird law of physics that when you say, “Go to Hell,” it causes vibrations in air molecules, which, when they hit your body, cause vibrations in the molecules in your body and then kills [00:23:00] cancer, the morally right thing to do would be to revise the English language and make saying, “Go to Hell,” a way of expressing respect for people. We can revise it. In that case, we should.
Similarly, the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea had a social practice of eating the brains of their dead. They practiced endo-cannibalism. If you read the justifications for endo-cannibalism, it’s really quite beautiful. It’s that you’re having part of the dead live on with you through every generation. Whenever I think about that, I tear up a little bit and I say, “Oh, I hope that my kids eat me,” except that there’s actually reasons not to do that. [00:23:30] It turns out that that practice of imputing meaning in that way kills people. It spreads a certain type of disease and causes further death. When the Fore discovered this, they had the good moral sense to revise their practice in order to save lives, which is what really matters.
Similarly, if we look at this and go, “There are a bunch of markets, like markets in kidneys and other things that,we have imputed meaning into them in such a way that we forbid people from doing things that would save lives.” Our practices of imputing meaning are literally killing people, so the right thing to do is [00:24:00] revise the practice to change the meaning we attach to things. The refusal to do so shows a lack of concern for real morality and overwhelming concern for surface social constructs.
Trevor Burrus: We’re talking about these symbolic things, but you mentioned misallocation, which is one of the things that people get concerned. If I remember correctly, I think Sandel is against scalping tickets or secondary ticket markets on allocation problems. Bruce Springsteen is playing, and then [00:24:30] some rich person can just buy a ticket. Someone stands in line and gets seat one, front row, all the way, rich person is like, “Oh, I’ll give you $5,000 for that,” or goes to a scalper or whatever. Now the rich people get all the good seats, and that’s a misallocation problem. Is that a valid concern when it comes to markets and those things?
Jason Brennan: Do you want to take this one, or should I do it?
Peter Jaworski: The only thing that I would say to that is you can set up the rules differently [00:25:00] if you want to. If you want a certain distribution of people by socioeconomic categories to attend your concert, you can do that. It is okay for somebody like, I don’t know, George Soros, to buy a ticket for $5,000 and get front row seats at a Brittney Spears concert if that’s what he wants to do. I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Jason Brennan: These particular goods that people think should be distributed fairly and equally. The example that Sandel gives is this thing called “Shakespeare in the Park” in New York City. [00:25:30] The people producing it would like it to be free and open to everyone. They completely and totally fail at doing that, even out of their own accord, because what ends up happening is people stand in line for a very long time to get the tickets. Rather than distributing it according to the scarce resource of money, the distribute it according to the scarce resource of time. Now people start exchanging time for money. “I’m rich, and I can’t afford, given my schedule, to stand in line for three hours to get a ticket, but you can. I can pay you to do it.”
Sandel says, “Oh, it’s just [00:26:00] too bad that now rich people are getting to see this again.” By hypothesis, the poor people standing in line would rather have the money than to see the show. Also, there is a third party here. Even if there were people that weren’t going to stand in line, what you’re having is a system in which rich people redistribute cash to poor people.
What’s interesting also about Sandel is almost every single example he gives in the book like this about, “Oh, it’s misallocated or insufficient. Only rich people get it.” They’re all publicly provided goods. Shakespeare in the Park, doctors [00:26:30] in Beijing and the free medical care there, and a number of other like express lanes on the public highways and stuff. It’s all like this is supposed to be a critique of the market, but it’s always the case of a market trying to fix a problem scarcity introduced by under-provided government provision.
Trevor Burrus: It seems like a lot of people would like those tickets to be distributed according to, either Bruce Springsteen or Shakespeare in the Park or whatever, how much they want to see it. That would be a metric of doing it. Maybe standing in line conveys that more than money. [00:27:00] Is that something we should be concerned? Maybe we just can’t distribute things by how much people want it, but standing in line is saying a lot?
Jason Brennan: Standing in line says a lot, but so does spending money says a lot. It’s really hard to make these interpersonal comparisons without something like a market actually.
Aaron Powell: You need a willingness to pay. You need to express a willingness to pay.
Jason Brennan: Or a willingness to stand in line.
Trevor Burrus: The communication, if I was like, “Hey, Jay. I got Tool tickets, and I stood in line for two and half weeks,” [00:27:30] or if I was like, “I got Tool tickets, and I paid $7,000 for them,” the first one makes me seem like more of a die-hard fan than the second one.
Peter Jaworski: You’re an authentic, real member of the Tool fan club.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly. That’s just like, “You deserve those tickets.”
Jason Brennan: I feel like that’s partly an illusion because, if I spend $7,000 on tickets, that’s a certain amount of work I had to do. I didn’t stand in line, but the way that I got it was by doing my work. I guess I’m not a good example of that because no one thinks [00:28:00] my work is particularly tedious or hard, but imagine I’m a waiter a Denny’s or something. Instead of standing in line, what I did is I serve people sandwiches for three months. That’s how I earned the tickets.
The worry people have here is there’s some people that can earn that money really, really quickly. $150 ticket? That’s an hour’s worth of work; whereas, for other people, that’s like 15 hours of work. Similarly, like standing in line, if you get there first come, first serve, if you manage to get there first thing in the morning, then you might not have to stand in line that long. Others [00:28:30] might have to stand longer. We don’t really have a good mechanism that really tracks people’s desire for things. Neither one of these is particularly good.
Aaron Powell: Does this mean that we should change the mechanism based on … you said that these are publicly provided goods, all of Sandel’s examples, but the other thing is they seem to be finite goods. There’s only so much supply of Shakespeare in the Park tickets that are possible. There’s only so much supply of express lanes. You can only pack so many cars into it. [00:29:00] If it’s something that the extra money that people would be spending would just increase the supply of goods, that’s one thing, but if there’s a finite then maybe the money does create problems.
Jason Brennan: I don’t think distribution according to need is what people need, to quote David Schmitz. I don’t think distribution according to desire is what people desire. Imagine you’re coming to a four way stop. We have rules for four way stop signs. Whoever gets there first gets to go. Simultaneous arrival, then the person on the right gets to go, et cetera. I forget what happens when literally all four people arrive at once. I think you just point each other through. [00:29:30] We also have a rule that says, “If you’re in dire emergency, you get to go first.” If your lights are flashing, we’re supposed to stop and let you go. If you have a siren, we let you go. Why don’t we just distribute according to need all the time? Imagine how awful that would be.
Imagine every time you got to a four way stop sign if there was another car there, you had to get out and talk to each other and figure out who the neediest person is, or, instead, the most desirous person. The person who really wants to go first, because they really have somewhere they need to get to go. That system would suck. It would be terrible. It would incredibly inefficient, and people wouldn’t get their needs met and their desires met.
I think something similar [00:30:00] goes with a lot of these other kinds of allocation mechanisms. We might very well think that ideally we have goods distributing according to whoever is going to get the most utility out of them, and we don’t have a perfect way of doing that, but empirically speaking, markets are much better at tracking than queuing, which is super duper inefficient.
Aaron Powell: Does keeping things off-limits to markets perhaps help as a buffer zone? If your thesis is that anything it is permissible [00:30:30] to have or sell or free or have or exchange for free, markets ought to be, but maybe one of the things that happens is as we commodify things, the more things we commodify, the more willing we are then to commodify things or exchange things that should’ve been off the table all along? It’s like it’s a slippery slope to dystopia, and so by just roping off a whole bunch of things, we’re providing a buffer?
Peter Jaworski: I think that’s a common criticism that people make. The criticism says something like, ” [00:31:00] Here we are on a slippery slope. If we allow all of these different things on the market, then eventually more and more things will be on the market.” I’d like to know exactly what we need the buffer for. What really matters in a lot of these cases are the actually attitudes that people have towards these objects.
Take the following example.
I think people have a obligation to care for their pets. I think people have an obligation to not harm their pets. In fact, Jay [00:31:30] and I might disagree, but I have a different view about whether or not pets, at least certain kinds of pets, count as property in the first place. People should have certain attitudes. The question is what does money and markets do to the attitudes that people have towards their dogs or their cats? I think the answer to that question is exactly nothing. People buy their dogs, and then they love them like members of the family.
What is this buffer that people want?
There’s also different ways to [00:32:00] sell things. For example, we want people to look at works of art in a particular way. We want them to appreciate the Renoirs, the whatevers, right? We want them to have that attitude, and yet those things are sold on a market, except they’re sold on an auction market. Auctions are special because what they do is they mark out the items up for auction as unique and distinct. You can’t participate in the auction unless you read a booklet about the items that are [00:32:30] up for auction in the first place. If you want people to look at objects as being unique and special, non-fungible, non-instrumental, one option for you is an auction market. Sell it via an auction rather than just at a Walmart.
Maybe we do want a buffer zone I guess, but there’s just these different kinds of markets that you could use to preserve the attitudes.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe that’s just an example of why people don’t like pet store dogs, but they go to a breeder. It’s still a market, [00:33:00] but pet stores seem like Walmart, and a breeder seems like more individualized.
Jason Brennan: Actually, on that very point, I read an article that said recently that there’s such a high status right now for having so-called rescue dogs, they used to be just called dogs from the pound but now we call them rescue dogs because why not engage in some moral grandstanding while we’re at it, that breeders are now selling the dogs to pounds in order to have them get rescued because they can’t get a market otherwise.
Trevor Burrus: That’s shocking and very sad.
Jason Brennan: Kind of more broadly, one thing we found was that [00:33:30] most of the people in this literature make an empirical claim, which is that participating in certain markets or commodifying certain things has a negative effect on our character. For some reason, they don’t seem to have access to the same journals that we do, because they didn’t go and read them. They mostly cite on ambiguous study that took place in Haifa, Israel 1970’s, and then they’re like, “Aha. Therefore, markets corrupt our character.” In fact, one of the things we do in part three of the book is just say, “Well, looks like Peter and I actually have access to more empirical stuff than everyone else,” so we went and read it. [00:34:00] It’s surprisingly in favor of markets. It’s like, “Well, turns out participating in markets doesn’t make you more selfish. It actually makes you nicer.”
Trevor Burrus: What is that study? Bet the story is interesting.
Jason Brennan: Some experiment done in Haifa, Israel in the 1970’s. They found that there were a lot of parents who were picking up their children late from daycare. Then some economists said, “Why don’t we try introducing a financial penalty for picking up your kids late, and we’ll start it off very, very low. Then we’ll raise it.” I forget the exact numbers, but let’s say like [00:34:30] 20% of people are picking up their kids late every day. Then they introduce a very small financial penalty. It was like the equivalent of like five bucks in current dollars. Then what happened was the number shot up. It went higher rather than lower. Then they kept raising, the number of people who picked up their kids late. When they raised the price even higher, then fewer and fewer people picked up their kids late.
One reading of this, which is consistent with the evidence, is that what happened was, “I felt bad that I was picking up my kids late. I felt like you and I had a [00:35:00] more than transactional relationship, and I was putting you out. When you put a price on it, I switch over from thinking of it in a moral way just to a purely transactional way, and I’m just willing to pay the price.” Fair enough. Here’s another interpretation. The fact that the price was so low communicated I was wrong about how much I was putting you out.
The problem as we were thinking about this is that the people who make these arguments are all talking about the meaning of money, and they missed that money means something and prices mean something. For example, suppose I just get mad at my wife for continuing to leave dishes out. [00:35:30] I’m like, “Dammit, Lauren! Henceforth, if you leave a dish out, you’re going to have to pay me for the cost of bearing your mess.” I’m like, “You’re going to have to pay me a nickel.” What would happen is she’d go, “Oh. I thought I was really putting you out by leaving the dishes out, but if all it takes to compensate you is a nickel I was wrong. I guess it really wasn’t that high of a cost.”
Trevor Burrus: You’re out a nickel, man. That’s it.
Jason Brennan: The problem with that particular study is that it’s consistent with both of those particular readings. It doesn’t decide between them, so [00:36:00] when you go and look at the other literature, it seems to suggest that actually markets tends to make us nicer and friendlier and more trusting and more caring. They don’t make us more selfish. In small group settings, sometimes introducing money can lead to a degree of mistrust, but in large group settings, introducing money actually greatly increases trust, et cetera, et cetera. If anything, the literature goes the other way.
In fact, for what it’s worth, there is an exchange between Michael Sandel and Herbert Gintis on this very point in the Boston Review, and Gintis [00:36:30] just called Sandel on this. He’s like, “Sandel, you’re just wrong about the empirical lit, and why do you keep saying the same thing?” Sandel kind of waved his hand at it, and then two weeks later gave a talk at Brown where he completely ignored all the stuff that Gintis brought up and just said the same thing to his audience. Maybe he read the stuff and wasn’t convinced, or maybe he just knew the people at Brown wouldn’t know better. I don’t know.
Aaron Powell: I’m curious if the people who use that study to say, “Look, introducing these small penalties just commodifies things,” [00:37:00] would then also argue against government fines for violations of laws and regulations.
Peter Jaworski: At least if they did they would be consistent. You’re right. We don’t see that. Actually, now that Jay brought up Herbert Gintis, it’s worth pointing out the other side of this particular discussion. Gintis and his colleagues went to small scale societies in remote parts of Africa, and they played different kinds of economic games like the ultimatum game, the dictator game, and so on. [00:37:30] What they found is that in some of these small-scale societies, people would behave more fairly, and they would care more about the other side of the transaction like who is harmed and who is not harmed. They would divide the dollar more close to equal.
Gintis and his colleagues regressed on a number of different possible differences. How religious were these groups? The gender disparity in the groups. All these different things. What they found is that the one [00:38:00] thing that explained the groups that were more fair in their distribution of their dollars, it had to do with how frequently they made contact with market. How integrated they were with market. The more interaction that people had with markets, the fairer and the more concerned with what was going on inside of other people’s heads these people were. That was the one discovery that they had.
In the 19th century, there was a popular thesis called [00:38:30] the “Doux Commerce” thesis. My French teacher is going to kill him. It’s the Gentle Commerce Thesis. Used to be very popular, and it said that markets make us better people. Right now, Michael Sandel, maybe Elizabeth Anderson, and others worry that markets make us worse. They change our character from book people to bad people. Jay gave a nice explanation for why they think that. It turns out, in the 19th century, they used to believe that markets would make us better people. This obviously an empirical question. [00:39:00] Now Jay and I cite Herbert Gintis on our side. We say, “Look, Gintis and his colleagues have discovered that markets make people better people.”
It should be small wonder. I go to the store, and I buy something. I say thank you for the thing that I’ve bought, and the other person says thank you. Isn’t that, in a way, magical? How do I make money on the market? Isn’t it about figuring out what you people want? Isn’t it about catering to what you people want? Now I get into the habit [00:39:30] of thinking about what other people want. What would make other people happy? If I get into that habit, then I become a better person. I start caring about other people more. That’s our story here. The empirical literature, I think, is on our side, but that’s an ongoing debate.
Jason Brennan: It’s not just Gintis. It’s a bunch of other studies, and we try to cite basically all of it. Part of the “Doux Commerce” thesis, I didn’t take French, I took Spanish.
Peter Jaworski: That was even worse than me. Thanks for that Jay.
Trevor Burrus: How is it spelled, by [00:40:00] the way?
Jason Brennan: [french 00:40:01]. That’s all I know.
Peter Jaworski: D-O-U-X. [French 00:40:07].
Trevor Burrus: That doesn’t count.
Peter Jaworski: [French 00:40:07]
Jason Brennan: That’s not real French anyways. Part of the “Doux Commerce” thesis is that I will become more tolerant because I have a market. In fact, empirically speaking, that is correct. There was a paper in APSR a couple of years ago just on this very point. It turns out that markets make us more tolerant of difference. The idea is something like, “I’m Christian, and you’re Muslim. You’re an infidel, and you think I’m an infidel. [00:40:30] I hate you, and you hate me, but, man, you really kind of want my wool and I really kind of want your spices.” We’re willing to overcome our aversion to one another in order to make the exchange, and then, upon interacting with each other, we discover, “Hey, you’re really not so bad. You’re really kind of like me.”
If you go to Marxists in the universe, they’re not empirical anyways they just ignore evidence and make up stuff, they’ll say things like, “Markets are responsible for racism and sexism and all this other stuff.” It’s like, “Nope. Empirically, actually they’re not. Empirically, they actually tend to undermine it. In fact, [00:41:00] the reason you’re talking about this here and not about people in other societies is because it’s in these market societies where people start thinking this is a problem.”
Aaron Powell: On the Gintis findings, I’m curious because I could see them, at least as you described it, not supporting the conclusion that you just drew about markets making people more fair. The people who didn’t have as much of an integration with markets, and so therefore in these games were behaving less fairly, [00:41:30] were they in fact less fair in other non-market sorts of games? Were they uniformly less fair, or were they simply less fair when they were engaging in market activity? You could also interpret it as that basic human decency and fairness are powerful drives, but markets, when markets are novel, they screw with … We’re not really sure how to react in them, so you’re bad at [00:42:00] it the first couple of times. Once you get practice, then your basic human decency reasserts itself.
Jason Brennan: I think here’s some evidence. People have done these kinds of studies other ways. It’s not just Gintis and Henrik and others. They’ve gone around the world playing games with people. You find a nice correlation. It’s measured by the Fraser Index. The more market-oriented your society, the nicer you play these game. The less market-oriented, the worse. It’s not just complete non-market [00:42:30] participants don’t play very well. It’s actually like people in somewhat marketized countries who do participate in markets, but not as much, also play less well.
There are also things like the amount of money people give for charity per capita is positively correlated with how market-oriented your society is, even when you control for income. It’s not just because you’re richer. Things like your degree of tolerance for difference, your degree of liberalism, is higher based upon how market-oriented your society is, even when you control for [00:43:00] other kinds of factors. You find lots of positive character traits are correlated positively with the market-orientation of your society. Negatively correlated with being a non-market society.
Peter Jaworski: We should say that it’s the Fraser Institute and the Cato Institute Economic Freedom of the World Index.
Trevor Burrus: We talk about things like kidney markets, which make a lot of people uncomfortable. We’re talking about a lot of symbolism. What these things symbolize. What people think about money. What it does to your thought process. A lot of people would say, “This isn’t [00:43:30] necessarily my concern. My concern is waking up in the bathtub with ice with the scar. My concern is poor people selling their kidneys for money. My concern is we’re now distributing based on money. Like the Bruce Springsteen concert, which maybe was like a funny joke, but now we’re actually saying that rich people are going to live and poor people are going to die when it comes to who’s going to get kidneys.” These are real exploitation, distribution, treating human beings a market commodity and meat problems that have nothing to do with what I think [00:44:00] of money. It’s just what will actually happen.
Peter Jaworski: I think you’ve raised what, to me, was the biggest motivation for writing the book in the first place. The questions that I’m most concerned about are things like a market in kidneys, a market in bone marrow, a market in human blood. These things have real life and death significance. We should split the how do we acquire the kidneys from how do we distribute them. First the people in a bathtub question. The worst kind [00:44:30] of market we can have is a black market. The kinds of things that you’re worried about are descriptions of the black market and not really the above-ground market.
If we legalize the sale of kidneys in the United States, do you think suddenly hospitals would just buy a kidney from someone who has a kidney in a cooler? Do you think somebody with a kidney in a cooler can go to the local hospital and be like, “Hey guys, go ahead and risk your license, go ahead and risk everything, and just buy this kidney [00:45:00] from a cooler”? No. Of course that’s not going to happen.
Trevor Burrus: I picture just guys like, “One kidney. One kidney right here.” Like an old snake oil salesman with a cane.
Peter Jaworski: Get your kidneys here.
Trevor Burrus: “I got your kidney right here. I got your kidney. I don’t know, fell off a truck somewhere.”
Peter Jaworski: Exactly. I see that people are worried about waking in a bathtub with a kidney missing, but that’s not a description of the market as it would exist here in the United States.
Aaron Powell: Isn’t that more a problem in a lack of market as it exists now? If you can buy one, then you can buy one, but if you can’t [00:45:30] well then maybe you’ll try stabbing the guy-
Peter Jaworski: You can incentivize someone to give you that kidney, so you don’t need to steal it. You can do it. Now, I said split the acquisition of the kidney from the distribution of the kidney. Notice that we have a market in food. What do we do with people who are poor? We give them food stamps. The fact that people are subsidized to purchase an item like food doesn’t mean that we no longer have a market in food. We do. We could have something like kidney stamps. If you are poor, we could keep the distribution [00:46:00] constant. Namely, we could continue to distribute on the basis of need or something like but have a market in the acquisition of kidneys.
Look. The following is uncontroversial. We could save thousands of lives every single year if we had a market in kidneys. The arguments against having a market in kidneys better be worth thousands of lives per year. I don’t know why people don’t realize this. They’re like, “Here’s an argument. If we introduce money into the kidney exchange, [00:46:30] that’ll treat people like objects,” or something like that. I’m like, “Okay. That’s a pretty good argument. Are you willing to pay say 1,500 lives per year to avoid this outcome?” The answer almost uniformly is no. If you compare the two sides of this particular exchange, it better that we save 1,500 lives and that 1,500 people are regarded as objects than that we let those 1,500 people die.
Jason Brennan: [00:47:00] Empirically Peter, who right now gets the kidneys in the lottery? Is it actually distributed equally according to socioeconomic status?
Peter Jaworski: No. Actually, there have been studies on this. Only rich people get the kidneys. In a sense, the whole “poor people won’t get them” isn’t actually an objective, because they already don’t get them. Since they don’t get them, there’s not a worry about taking them away. We can only do it-
Aaron Powell: How are they being distributed if the rich people are getting them now?
Jason Brennan: Part of the reason for that is richer people tend to be better candidates. They’re healthier so they’re better candidates for receiving the kidney. Part of it might [00:47:30] be that, no one really knows why, maybe there’s some double dealing on the background. Some furtive markets that are going on. Maybe it’s people using their connections and things like that.
Trevor Burrus: A big incentive to slide $20,000 under the table to whoever makes the decision if it’s life or death for you and you have $20,000.
Peter Jaworski: The issue here is pretty big. There’s now over 100,000 people just in the United States alone who are waiting for a kidney.
Jason Brennan: The overwhelming majority will not get one.
Peter Jaworski: That’s true. The numbers are increasing. The reason why the numbers [00:48:00] are increasing is actually, in a way, good news. It’s because our dialysis technology has become better. Although people who are on kidney dialysis, it’s basically really close to torture. You have to go there like three times a week. You sit there for two hours, and then a machine filters your blood for you. That’s a significant cost too. Here’s a way to save the medical system a lot of money. Pay for the kidneys. The cost of dialysis swamps the cost of a kidney transplant operation [00:48:30] even if people are paid for kidneys. The US government spends an enormous amount of money on dialysis in the US every single year. It would save the government money. It would just be better all around.
Trevor Burrus: Do we have any idea what the price of a kidney is?
Peter Jaworski: We know the estimates of what the price of a kidney in the US might have to be in order to clear the market. It would be somewhere around 80 to 100,000.
Jason Brennan: By the way, people say things [00:49:00] like, “Oh, well the poor are all going to sell their kidneys right away, and so they’re going to get a really low price.” First of all, there’s a couple problems with this. One is the thing that determines the price is not so much desperation as the amount of competition. If you read Ricardo, competition dominates desperation when it comes to bargaining power. Here’s another thing you could say.
This is what Michael Sandel thinks. The poor are so desperate that none of their transactions count as consensual. I guess that means you can’t sell them a sandwich either, because by hypothesis that’s not consensual. [00:49:30] If you really believe that, here’s why you legalize in kidney markets and thinking that they’re morally permissible. Everyone can sell a kidney providing they make $30,000 a year. In that world where we had that law, there would be some poor people selling them on the black market for a low price still, but nevertheless, the predominately markets would be coming from upper class people or people who are doing pretty well. There are a lot of people who that’d still be willing to sell their kidney for like $80,000 under that kind of system. You can constrain the market in a way that will alleviate the objection.
This is often the problem that people have. It’s like [00:50:00] they’re complaining about the market per se on the basis of contingent features of the market that we can eliminate. If you’re like, “I don’t think that you should buy chicken nuggets from Chick-Fil-A because they hate gay people.” You’re not objecting to chicken nuggets per se, you’re objecting to chicken nuggets from that particular vendor.
Aaron Powell: You guys cover a lot of the anti-commodification arguments in the book. I’m curious, which one or maybe ones you’ve heard since you wrote the book do you think are [00:50:30] interesting … I guess these are two different things. Interesting and/or the strongest?
Jason Brennan: I’ll go with interesting. Peter can take the strongest. My brother-in-law is a surgeon, and my sister-in-law is a medical dietitian. They were talking about this stuff. They were like, “But you don’t understand.” They see the people who come in and need organs. They’re like, “A lot of these people, they’re just kind of like human train wrecks, and the reason they’re so sick is because they take bad care of themselves. We shouldn’t allow those people to get a kidney. They should just die.” They were [00:51:00] like, “What do you think of that?” I said, “You know, to be honest, I hadn’t considered responding to just pure misanthropy in the book.” That’s the most interesting objection that I’ve gotten.
Peter Jaworski: In terms of the strongest, I think an objection from the philosopher Mark Wells, I still think it’s the best. I think Jay and I might be on different sides of this issue. Here’s our thesis: “If it’s permissible for free, it’s permissible for money.” Mark’s response is like, “Okay, take the category of things that are obligations. [00:51:30] Here’s things that I’m obligated to do, so in a sense I owe it to you already. Well, if you’re obligated to do something, then you’re permitted to do that thing, so it follows that you can do it for free, but you can’t then make it contingent on money.”
Here’s a concrete example. Suppose you’re walking along, and there’s a baby drowning in a puddle. You’re obligated to pull the baby out of the water. Let’s suppose that you and I agree about the ethics of this particular issue. Never mind the people who think that we’re not obligated to save drowning babies [00:52:00] or something. We’ll just ignore that.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a pretty fringe group.
Peter Jaworski: Let me just say to that fringe group, “You’re wrong.”
Jason Brennan: Despite what Murray Rothbard writes.
Trevor Burrus: Especially despite what Rothbard said, yes.
Peter Jaworski: I’m obligated to pull the baby out the water. In fact, I have to do it. If I were to stand there and say, “Well, I’ll pull this baby out of the puddle for $5.00,” no. I can’t do that. I have to pull the baby out. I owe it to that baby to save [00:52:30] it. I can’t have a market in those things. Go ahead Jay, because Jay has a good response to his objections.
Jason Brennan: I think it’s true that you can’t threaten not to do in exchange for money. You’re not allowed to threaten not to do this, but you can still get money for it. Let’s say that you think that you have an obligation to fight during a draft. I don’t think that, but suppose you think that or I could imagine a case where I would think that. Nevertheless, we still pay those people. If somebody saves the baby, and then we’re like, “We’re going to give you a cash reward, like $10,000, for saving the baby,” he’s not obligated [00:53:00] to say, “No. I can’t take that, because then it would be introducing a market.” Again, you can actually receive money for doing things that you’re obligated to do. You can receive rewards for it.
Within a marriage, you might reward each other for taking good care of the children even though you owe it to the children to take good care of them for free. We do have reward systems for people doing their duty. You just can’t threaten not to do your obligation in exchange.
Trevor Burrus: That would just add the extra badness in. You just see a baby, and then the threat [00:53:30] is the wrongness. Getting the rewarded after the fact is not exactly the same as getting paid to something.
Peter Jaworski: No, and it’s essential to something’s being a market that it’s a quid pro quo. I will do something just in case. I will quid if you quo. I make it contingent in that way. Another example that Jay came up with in response to this objection is the case of the lifeguard. We pay lifeguards to sit on alert, and then when people are drowning, they’re obligated. [00:54:00] Just like all of us, I guess, would be obligated to save the drowning person. We do pay a person to sit there on alert.
Aaron Powell: Is that really a counter to it, because we’re not paying them in the moment? We’re paying them to make their time available, just like we could pay people to wander around looking for babies who are drowning. Then, if that person said, “Okay, now that the baby’s drowning in front of me, give me $5.00,” or the lifeguard said. “Okay, okay. I’ll save this person, but you give me $5.00,” that seems different and troubling.
Jason Brennan: In a sense, yeah, because he’s already agreed to [00:54:30] save the baby now that he’s there. Suppose we stop paying him, he just didn’t show up that day. He’s like, “You guys haven’t been paying. I’ve worked here for six weeks. I haven’t gotten a paycheck. I’m not coming to the pool that day,” and a kid drowns.
Aaron Powell: If he was already there and the kid was drowning and he said, “Well, you haven’t paid me in a week, so I’m not going to hop in.”
Peter Jaworski: He goes on strike.
Jason Brennan: What I’m worried about this is that it’s going to come down to whether we’re going to call it a market or not. We still have an [00:55:00] example of a person who is doing something and getting money for it. In some cases, they’re only willing to be there to do it in the first place because of the incentive of money.
Peter Jaworski: Jay’s response goes something like this. Jay, interrupt if I’m wrong about this. It’s something like, “Look, take a look at the nature of the thing we’re talking about, namely saving children from drowning. Is there a way to have a market in that particular good?” The answer is yes. Of course that’s right. We do have lifeguards, and nobody thinks there’s anything the matter [00:55:30] with paying somebody. My own gut tells me your last point, Aaron, is exactly how I feel about it too. No, I’m not talking about the nature of the good. I’m talking about this moment to moment like, “Right now, I have this obligation, and I have to do it. I can’t make it contingent on anyone paying me.”
Jason Brennan: That, I think, brings us to one class of objections we consider early in the book. The first part of the book is to clearly clarify what the debate is about. Actually, in doing so, we knock out about half of the things [00:56:00] people complain about. We say there are what we call contingent objections to markets. They’re on incidental features of markets. You can point to particular examples where it’d be wrong to sell something, even though normally it’s okay.
For example, if I say, “Peter. You gave am lunchbox, and I promised never to sell it.” Then I can’t sell that thing, even though, given my promise, I could still give it away for free. Like, “Oh. There’s a thing you can do for free, you can’t have for money.” [00:56:30] It’s like, “Yeah, that very specific thing, given that very specific promise I can’t do, but that’s not very interesting because it’s still, in general, you can sell lunchboxes.” There are going to be all these kind of cases like this where it’s like, “No. Right now in this particular case, you’ve got to do it for free. You can’t do it for money,” but nevertheless that is the kind of thing that can be bought and sold. If we make it about interesting natural kinds, it’s like, “Yeah that’s kind of thing can almost always be bought and sold if it’s the kind of thing you can do for free.”
Peter Jaworski: Sorry to interrupt, but two things. First, I did give Jay a [00:57:00] lunchbox. In fact, it is like, “Human live kidney inside.” It’s a funny lunchbox.
Jason Brennan: No kidney though, unfortunately.
Peter Jaworski: Second, this might call for what might seem like a tiny little change in our thesis. We say, “If it permissible but not obligatory to do for free, then it’s permissible but not obligatory to do for money.” If we make that tiny change, then that covers all of those cases. For philosophers like us, that’s a really big deal. I still think that objection [00:57:30] is a beautiful objection to a book of philosophy. It’s significant and we would have to adjust our thesis in light of it. It’s a big deal, but it would be a way to deal with it if Jay’s response about natural kinds isn’t good enough.
Jason Brennan: Let me give you another example like this, like the Mark Wells example. This was brought up to me by Loren Lomasky. He’s a boisterous professor at UVA. He said, “Well, look, I’m obligated to give my students a grade, so can I now just say [00:58:00] to them something like, ‘I’m going to auction off grades in my class and you give you an A because you paid me, not because you actually learned it?’” I said, “No. In light of previous existing agreements that you’ve made and representations you’ve made, you’ve now acquired an obligation to distribute grades according to merit, not according to how much students pay.” Nevertheless, grades are the kind of thing that can be bought and sold.
If want to start a new university, let’s call it University of Phoenix of something … I want to start a new university, and in there [00:58:30] I make it clear upfront, “You’re going to have classes, but the end of the day the grade that you get is dependent on how much money you pay for the class. We’re not going to lie to people when we tell employers what grades mean on transcripts. We’ll say, ‘Oh, by the way, we auction off grades.’” I make that all clear. I don’t lie about it. I start the university, and to my surprise, a bunch of people enroll in it. They start buying their grades, and then employers for some reason hire them even though I haven’t lied. I’m like, “Look, it’s weird, but I think that’s perfectly permissible.” I can always find a way to sell that thing [00:59:00] in a permissible way, even if I can point to specific instances where it’d be wrong to do so.
Aaron Powell: Is there anything that is permissible to sell now or we think of as permissible that you think should not be?
Peter Jaworski: Look, there’s probably a number of cases where I say, “We shouldn’t sell that thing in that particular way.”
Trevor Burrus: The new Garth Brooks album probably should not be for sale.
Peter Jaworski: My only objection to some things out on the market … I’d have to sit and think, but [00:59:30] my gut tells me that probably there’s a bunch of things where I say, “Don’t sell it that way. Sell it differently.”
Jason Brennan: Arms deals that you might … Like, “Let’s sell a bunch of weapons to this particular dictatorship.”
Peter Jaworski: Yeah. Nuclear weapons just simply should not be for sale. Period.
Jason Brennan: You shouldn’t have them.
Peter Jaworski: When the US and other countries-
Trevor Burrus: That’s a pretty strong claim.
Peter Jaworski: When the US and other countries make sales of certain arms, I think probably they shouldn’t have.
Trevor Burrus: Can you give one away for free?
Jason Brennan: No.
Trevor Burrus: I think we have [01:00:00] before, given a nuclear weapon. Maybe, “Hey, here’s a free nuclear weapon Israel.” I have no idea. May be making this up.
Peter Jaworski: I think nuclear disarmament is a good idea all around the world.
Trevor Burrus: That brings up a question about practicality, because you raise a little bit … I think the really clear and excellent part of the book, which is very good, is you clean out the cobwebs and say, “Your objections to this thing being bought and sold, most of them have actually not about the thing. They’re about [01:00:30] other effects that come with the thing. We will just say we can regulate that market in a different way and fix that problem.” If your problem is, as you said, the kidneys, you can’t sell a kidney under $30,000. All this stuff. Is that a realistic thing to expect from government? Maybe one reason we don’t actually have that market in some of these things is because I’m a libertarian. I don’t really expect government to do a good job of fixing all these little problems that we may have with the distribution and with whether it has effects for the [01:01:00] poor, whether they’re being exploited, and so we just don’t have a market in that. Realistically, we just prohibit a market because we can’t fix it.
Jason Brennan: There’s two senses in which a system could be unrealistic. I was just writing about this because Bas van der Vossen and I had been writing about open borders, and people said, “That’s not realistic because people don’t support it.” There’s two senses of irrealism. One is the policy is not going to happen because people don’t like it. The reason they don’t like it is because they don’t understand it. That’s the case for a lot of policies.
They don’t understand the market, so they’re not going to vote [01:01:30] for it. They’re not going to support it, and the politicians will cater to it. That’s a problem, but the way you fix that is hopefully by informing people. Though, if you read my other recent book, I don’t think that’s going to work either.
Then there’s another sense of irrealism where it’s like, “The reason this isn’t going to work is because all of the incentives are wrong. If you have the policy in place, then the incentives would cause people to create conflict.” That’s why communism is unrealistic because the incentives are all wrong. The things that we’re advocating don’t have that problem. They have the problem of lack of support, but they don’t have the problem of creating bad [01:02:00] incentives that undermine the very institutions. If we could wave a magic wand and legalize our kidney sales and legalize prostitution and legalize a bunch of other things we think should be legalized, and then we forbid people from change those laws, those markets would operate just fine. They don’t have any kind of internal dynamic where it’s inherently problematic.
Peter Jaworski: In addition, Trevor, that magic wand, it’s like the courts. Let’s take a concrete case. The case of human bone marrow. The D.C. Circuit [01:02:30] Court of Appeals for the … What is it? Ninth circuit?
Trevor Burrus: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Peter Jaworski: Okay. That order. In 2012, a case was brought before them by the Institute for Justice. They ruled that it is permissible, it’s legal, for people to be compensated for giving a bone marrow donation provided that they use a procedure called apheresis rather than aspiration. Aspiration is the giant needle that goes in your hip, and then we suck out the bone marrow. Apheresis is you get injected with a synthetic protein called filgrastim, I think [01:03:00] it is, and then we take a regular blood donation. Then we separate out the baby bone marrow from the rest. The rest goes back into you, and we keep the bone marrow. At issue before that court was whether or not that’s too close to just basically paying somebody for blood for one to be illegal but the other one to be legal. The court did find in favor of the Institute for Justice and the plaintiffs in that particular court case. Now it is legal [01:03:30] in the US to compensate people for bone marrow.
A former student of my, Doug, started a company called Hemeos, which unfortunately this year went under. It went under. It couldn’t put up the fight because it takes a lot of resources, but it’s available, and it’s a legal option right now in the United States. It’s only a matter of time before some company comes along and begins to compensate people for bone marrow. Now the question of market design is top of mind for a lot of these [01:04:00] companies.
Trevor Burrus: In the broader picture, you mentioned, Peter, that the first in a 27 part series about market and this first one is whatever. Getting into the commodification area, because I’ve always thought that objections to money were a huge part of objections of capitalism … If someone said that, “The only reason I’m a doctor is because I want to go to the strip club every night and make it rain,” they would think that that was bad. [01:04:30] If it was like, “The only reason I’m a doctor is to buy fine art,” they’re like, “Oh. That’s okay.” Money allows you to do either one of those things, so it seems kind of crappy.
You learn all of these objections, dah, dah, dah, meaning of money. What did you learn about markets broader for the general libertarian thesis, even if this is not a libertarian book, how we can communicate or what we can focus on better when we’re talking about how markets can make lives better?
Jason Brennan: I think the main thing is if you’re making purely [01:05:00] economic arguments, what’s going to happen is you’ll win because the economic arguments are right, but the other side will always shift it over to moral arguments. They’re going to say, “Yeah, that works, but it’s bad.” You really do have to be able to make those moral arguments. This book, my former book “Why Not Capitalism?”, and others, they’re there to meet them on their own terms. You have to play their game, and you have to play it better.
The biggest thing we learned, I think, about markets it just how [01:05:30] often the meaning of money and the meaning of markets can change. How much variation there is. In a sense, the other people on the other side, their complaints are extremely parochial. It’s like they’ve seen very little of what markets can be and how money can work, and so their complaints are based upon that at most and often misunderstanding even the small, tiny sphere of the world that they’re seeing.
Peter Jaworski: I also, just to add, I think it would be wise for libertarians to focus a bit more on business ethics. [01:06:00] Here’s what I mean by that. Here’s a question: Should prostitution be allowed? The answer, I think, is yes, and libertarians are going to say yes, but there is a separate question about how you go about buying and selling sex. It is true that there are better and worse ways from a moral point of view to offer sex for sale.
Once you realize that when I say that a company shouldn’t be selling sex or shouldn’t be selling tickets or whatever, in that particular way, when I make a kind of moral [01:06:30] objection to that particular bit of behavior, I’m not suggesting that it should be illegal. I’m not saying, “Oh. The government should come in and regulate it and make it be in accordance with my own conception of the right way to buy and sell sex.” That’s not the point. Being neutral or leaving it up to the market to decide how people buy and sell all of these sensitive things, I don’t think there’s any reason for us to be silent about those particular issues. I think we should be vocal about like, “No. This is the wrong way of selling [01:07:00] this thing. It should be sold in this way rather than this other way.”
Jason Brennan: It’s weird, because if you think about the history of libertarian thinkers, none of the major important libertarian thinkers have believed the following: That all morality is is about rights. That’s reduced simply to the question of rights. Nevertheless, it’s very common among, say, libertarian lay people, to talk about as if that’s all there is to morality. It’s not.
Peter Jaworski: The resistance to is it a moral obligation for me to pull the child out the puddle? [01:07:30] If anything is obviously a moral obligation, it’s that one. It’s hard to resist the obviousness of it. I think too many people look at that case, and if it’s an obligation, then they think that my view is that the government should enforce baby saving. Of course, that doesn’t follow. That’s a non-sequitur. The fact that it’s an obligation that you keep the baby from drowning doesn’t mean that you need to institute good Samaritan laws. You don’t have to deny the strong intuition [01:08:00] that probably most people, except for many sociopaths or psychopaths, feel that, “Yes, obviously I have an obligation here,” you don’t have to deny it to avoid the conclusion the government should institute it.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us at www.libertarianism.org.