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Regular readers surely know about our fondness here at TUW for these little buggers.  They are not just tucked away in the deep dark corners of campus either.

In this episode of the Cricket Chronicles, we engage the question of what moral limits there are to markets, or at least one small aspect of this much larger issue. One common criticism of “markets” is that basically everything today is for sale. I sympathize with elements of this criticism in several respects. First, it might appear that lots and lots and lots of “useless” stuff ends up having resources directed toward its production and consumption. In other posts we have explored whether or not this is good, bad or something other, but I do recognize this as a concern of folks. Second, there seems to be a very hazy line between what is and what is not sacred. Are there not some things that ought not be commodified? I am not going to weigh in on that here. I want to focus on two other aspects of this line of questioning.

First is that “no one” made markets. No one put out rules for when a market should or should not exist, much like the footprints in the snow following a fresh storm, these markets emerge from the self-interested actions of millions of buyers and sellers each responding to hundreds upon hundreds of incentives every day. Indeed, no one ever sat down and said, “you know, we have this major problem here – there are simply not enough things out there for all of the people who want them, so, let’s have this thing called capitalism and see how it works.” It simply didn’t go down that way, and discussing “markets” in the anthropomorphic way that is often done, particularly in these lines of inquiry, really takes us away from appreciating that market activity is an emergent process. Yes, it does operate in a richer institutional and intellectual framework and yes the “rules” of the game do alter when ends up being for sale or not, but simply condemning “markets” as allowing “everything” to be sold quite misses the point.

Second, and the point of today’s post, is that as with much moral pondering on markets, our website musings are far simpler to write down than they are to follow through to their logical conclusions. I was recently sent an article which “lit into markets” for allowing people to sell themselves sexually, sell certain drugs (like beer) and the like. And imagine the horror that would befall the world if in fact we tried to promote the marketing and selling of organs like kidneys. Efficiency and lives saved be damned! We just CANNOT allow people to sell body parts for profit (again, this is NOT  a post about whether we should or should not allow this, we spend a good deal of time exploring that on this site in the past).

Suppose I agree with this sentiment – that there are some things that are “too sacred” to be sold, even if thousands of lives could be saved by it? We first encounter the first logical difficulty is who gets to decide what those things that are forbidden actually are. Is it a few government bureaucrats, who after all surely only work in the “public” interest? Are we going to not be influenced by folks who would profit from particular things NOT being for sale (e.g. particular drug companies who are richer because dialysis machines take care of folks who can’t get new kidneys) and so on. How do we ensure that we are not merely institutionalizing some people’s preferences at the expense of other folks? Is there really anything universally sacred about certain things? I thought we were all supposed to celebrate diversity? If so, then why is it not celebrated that someone wishes to share his or her body with someone else, even if in exchange for resources? And of course, there is the matter of actually defining just what it means to “sell” something. Surely these actions go far beyond just showing up at the storefront window and buying it. So, what is and is not allowed? Could one “donate” a kidney today for a wink-wink “repayment” some years in the future? How would one track this down?

But the real reason for my interest is that we have basically tied ourselves into a logical pretzel once we start trying to defend this, “some things are too sacred to sell” position coherently. For example, I am told regularly that we should not allow people to sell organs because it is risky, and that these risks may fall disproportionately on the poor. Which I am glad to entertain only if you entertain the following question: “do you therefore also agree that we should prevent the poor from working jobs on manufacturing lines or on fishing vessels?” After all, you have no problem with me making a decision to go work on an oil rig to support my family, which is probably more risky than getting a kidney operation (oh yes you will say, but you only have one kidney, and you have many days to work, which really only pushes the question down one level). By the logic of the “markets can be really immoral” crowd, we “really” are coerced into things like selling kidneys so that someone ought to step in to protect me. Then, by that EXACT SAME LOGIC, each of us is coerced into going to work every day (by that thing called scarcity), so who is going to step in to protect me from that “choice?”

And I encourage you to ask folks that question. And out will come our favorite little creatures. I’ve been asking folks these questions for 10 years and on only ONE single occasion did someone not bust out the crickets and actually give me something to think about. Perhaps I will share that story in the future. But for now, enjoy your favorite summertime evening critters.

3 Responses to “The Cricket Chronicles, a New and Continuing Series”

  1. Graham Peterson says:

    The important assumption on the other side of this debate is that economic growth relies on the exploitation of more and more people, more and more resources, etc. Of course that is wrong. Exponential growth comes from innovation — production efficiencies realized wielding an existing stock of resources (ergot why population and eventually environmental extraction can stay stable while growth continues).

    In the exploitation view, markets will expand by exploiting greater resources, so there is huge concern over organ donation, or prostitution — things that even at peak efficiency would contribute small portions of GDP. But the real motivating assumption is dead wrong. Markets do not advance by the impinging upon once-sacred objects (for Marx, women and children sucked into the factory; for environmentalists the national forests).

    And anyway, it’s not at all clear why market transactions are profane, unless one takes for granted that egoism and self interest drive markets — a view which ignores completely the massive amount of prosocial ethics and cooperation which actually exist in, and underpin, a functioning market.

  2. Scott says:

    “Like footprints in the snow”

    “That little thing called scarcity.”

    Brilliant stuff, truly fun to read!

  3. Harry says:

    Great question, WC!

    My cynical first answer is that Nancy Pelosi has already stepped in to free you of the need to choose to go to work and labor in your office preparing lectures for the cricket who may choose differently; do you not know she has liberated you to roam in the mountains and has given you the security,of health care and the opportunity to get food stamps and disability payments for your whole family? And, if the running capitalist dogs do not have their way, the government will provide a market for carbon credits.

    Last night we had dinner at the club, and right there, at my right elbow, was a stranger, an older guy than even I, with what I surmise to be his date, and she was saying, “But if solar power makes sense economically, then we would have it, right?” Being circumspect, I did not jump into the conversation.

    Then she said, “You own a Tesla, right? How are your solar panels going to generate enough energy for everybody’s Tesla?”

    In fairness, I only barely heard him muttering about new technological developments, as my friend Jack commented on the fine day.

    But I do think I was sitting next to a person who chose to buy a Tesla, and probably participates in the federal market gravy train for renewable energy.

    As WC states, nobody created markets, and the metaphor of the footprints in the snow is fresh and appropriate.

    And, if we are to talk about prostitution as being an illustration of the evils of markets, how come Harry Reid does not stand up on the Senate floor and ask for its abolition as the first order of the day? Any crickets care to offer an opinion on that one, being defenders of women?

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