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Conventional wisdom has it that when an athlete claims a deal is “not about the money” that it is, in fact, precisely about the money.

In the same vein, when someone tells me that “I have no objection to markets, I know they work well,” all I hear is, instead, “I think commercial society is repugnant and I will say anything to convince others to spread my anti-human message.” How come when athletes say it isn’t about the money, large swaths of the media and public try to see right through it (regardless of whether it is true), but when someone claims their objection to something in society is not about anti-market fundamentalism, that nary an eyebrow is raised?

Here are two arguments I run across frequently:

  1. Environmentalists on tradable pollution permits: “It’s Immoral to Buy the Right to Pollute.” Never mind that pollution is a cost, a by-product of activities that we benefit from – I would not expect anti-market fundamentalists to ever recognize this, because they do not believe anything good comes from exchanging with other human beings. No,their argument against the use of permits to reduce pollution is that it is immoral to have the right to pollute. The immorality comes in many forms, but a major argument used is that allowing pollution permits to be bought and sold removes the moral stigma that ought to be associated with it. So, allowing property rights exchanges in this sector is bad because it DE-stigmatizes those who purchase and sell the good in question.
  2. Opponents of kidney markets: “It’s immoral to sell body parts, even if it would save thousands of lives.” They might dress up arguments against the sale of organs as ugly utilitarianism, but I argue that not permitting peaceful exchanges is a violation of property rights, and is therefore immoral, independent of utilitatarian notions (we are not coercing people into sales). However, a major argument, perhaps THE major argument, against legalizing the sale of kidneys is that the people that sell kidneys would suffer from social stigma and reduced opportunities for improving their lives as a result of the stigma. In short, you will wear a scarlet letter if you are found out to be an organ SELLER. So, allowing property rights exchanges in this sector is bad because it STIGMATIZES those who purchase and sell the good in question.

What’s it gonna be? Markets are bad because they stigmatize people? Markets are bad because they de-stigmatize people? You cannot have it both ways. In other words, it IS about the markets, and it IS because people do not like to differentiate between costs and moral wrongs. And they do not like the idea that for one to survive in this world, all of us must work hard to produce something of value, and be willing to exchange with the billions of self-seeking strangers that are out there.

At least when athletes say it isn’t about the money, they aren’t using the same arguments

One Response to “It’s Not About the Markets”

  1. G says:

    the first example you gave, pollution permits, doesn’t match up with your conclusion. the act of selling the right to pollute isn’t de-stigmatizing people, it’s de-stigmatizing the act of polluting. This act is what should be fundamentally kept immoral because other wise, people fail to see a reason for reducing it. putting it on the market may be immoral, but who’s to say it isn’t necessary for the betterment of combating global warming, this i agree with. however in this particular case, markets are bad at the moment, because the complicated issue of pollution permits and our inability to regulate it or even specify the details, opens up a large opportunity for criminal activities. You can have it both ways, it isn’t a black and white issue.

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