byÂ Jason Brennan
AtÂ Business Ethics Review Journal,Â Dan Layman has a critique of Markets without Symbolic Limits. Abstract:
Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski reject expressive objections to markets on the grounds that (1) market symbolism is culturally contingent, and (2) contingent cultural symbols are less important than the benefits markets offer. I grant (1) and (2), but I deny that these points suffice as grounds to dismiss expressive critiques of markets. For many plausible expressive critiques of markets are not symbolic critiques at all. Rather, they are critiques grounded in the idea that some market transactions embody morally inappropriate normative stances toward the goods or services on offer.
You wont be surprised to learn that Peter and I dont think the critique is successful, in part because we dont think Layman successfully shows theres a real difference between embodying morally inappropriate stances and symbolic objections. A response paper is forthcoming.
Graham Peterson also sent me this comment:
Do Markets Make People Selfish?
Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworksi have just published a cleverÂ new articleÂ inÂ EthicsÂ called Markets without Symbolic Limits, in which they throw some new light on the repugnant markets literature (think Al Roth, Michael Sandel, etc.). Â The repugnant markets literature asks why people are a-OK with markets in some things (PlayStations), but not others (kidneys).
Brennan and Jaworskis addition is clever because it goes beyondÂ the usual arguments recommending markets, which are materialist, and come from the guys in the economics and philosophy departments, and addresses market critics on their own English department turf, in symbolic terms.
Theirs is an extremely important, and extremely different, tactic for proponents of markets. Libertarians, conservatives, moderate liberals, and anyone else who believes in supply and demand cannot just keep scratching their heads when people dont get it, orÂ concluding that their view is superior and sophisticated.
Brennan and Jaworksi have landed on the first principle of persuasionÂ if your audience speaks symbolism, youre not going to change emÂ speaking materialism.
The bulk of the article reviews empirical literature in anthropology and sociology, literature that shows just how contextually dependentÂ the meaning of money is. Â In some cultures, giving cash is a higher honor and more intimate than hand-knit mittens. Â They conclude that since there is nothing inherent in money, that attaches any particular positive or negative significance to it (contraÂ Freud and Simmel on filthy lucre), we ought to think about how money has been constructed in the West.
If we can convince people there are sound empirical and moral reasons to change the meanings we attach to money and markets, lets get right to it! Â It is a really brilliant argument. Â Id love to see moreÂ libertarians and economists engaging the other side like this.
But I want to contend with the paper a bit. Â They start with some definitional work, reviewing the arguments against markets. Â There are material arguments against markets, like polluted river externalities or the inefficiencies that might result in a market for organs. Â These are traditional, materialist, economic, political, complaints. Â On the other hand, they want to separate outÂ semioticÂ complaints about markets Â complaints that pose markets themselves as a social force that degrades and debases objects.
I dont see a difference. Â Every one of the not-semiotic complaints that Brennan and Jaworski list derives in what is at bottom a semiotic concern, that markets run on and encourage selfishness. Â Peoples intuition, for better or worse, is that:
Exploitation is the result of greed.
Misallocation results from bosses who dont care about employees, or because capitalists arent charitable.
Selling people things that are bad for them is a result of carelessness and greed (the paternalistic complaint).
Harmful externalities result from careless people not considering the knock-on effects of their actions.
The selfishness of markets correlates to and probably generates other vices, like vanity or sloth or envy.
So, in my view, the entire enterprise of repugnant market research can be reduced to the semiotic question: why do the lions share of culturesÂ believe that markets and money taint sacred objects with the profanity of selfishness? Â Brennan and Jaworski exhort us to do more work . . . on the psychology underlying semiotic objections to markets.
Our past wasÂ unimaginably violentÂ relative to today. Â If you think Republicans and Democrats are prone to think the other team are a bunch of sociopaths, you can only imagine what the mentality was when peopleÂ routinelyÂ massacred one anothers tribes at dawn. Â So, were understandably prone to think outgroups are selfish people who lack our ethics of reciprocity and community solidarity. Â We think out groups are evil. Â Trading partners by definition come from out groups. Â Ergot, we associate marketsand its material totem, moneywith selfishness. Â By extension, weÂ usually relegate low status people to dealing with outgroups, to doing our trading and banking. Â In European history, those people were Jewish.
Now, that conflation of outgroups with nasty selfishnessÂ is not entirely irrational. Â When positive sum trade between my ingroup and your outgroup breaks down, we probablyÂ willÂ get nasty and hurt one another. Â So people are right to sense the tension and conflict in negotiation, in the marketplace. Â Economists mostly ignore that process. Â Deals dont break down in the economics textbook. Â Best friends dont sue each other and tank a successful business partnership, because rational agents recognize that trades are mutually beneficial.
If we recognize that people generally associate markets with greed, and maybe understandably associate greed with a lot of bad behavior, we can probably be more persuasive in enjoining people to experiment with markets. Â That will mean telling a story where private insurers and for profit hospitals arent callous, suspender wearing fat cats. Â It will mean telling a story where people running black markets in organs and babies in third world countries actuallyÂ doÂ care about the customers they are serving. Â And so on, with the bankers, with the bosses, with the drug dealers, with the childrens toys manufacturers.
Protesting and beating people over the head with supply and demand diagrams, calling their ideas economic fallacies, probably isnt going to do the trick.
InÂ the final section ofÂ Markets without Limits,Â Jaworski and I do some speculation about the psychology underlying anti-commodification attitudes. People have various objections about how markets in this and that would cause certain bad effects. E.g., they might say that they oppose kidney markets because they think they would prevent poor people from getting kidney markets. Now, suppose you ask them, You think the market causes bad thing X. Suppose you had good empirical evidence that it doesnt cause X. Would you be fine with the market then? About half of people say yes. And about half say no. You can quickly get people to be morally dumbfoundedtheyre convinced markets in this or that are evil, but they arent sureÂ why. Following some ideas from Hayek and others, Jaworski and I speculate that its a combination of disgust and that our moral psychology wasnt designed for extended and indirect forms of cooperation.
What do you think?
*This article was previously published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Jason BrennanÂ is Assistant Professor of Business and Philosophy at Georgetown University. He is the author ofÂ The Ethics of VotingÂ (Princeton University Press, 2011),Â andÂ A Brief History of LibertyÂ (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), co-authored with David Schmidtz.
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