"Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets" by Debra Satz [Full Text]

Ethics & International Affairs, Volume 25.2 (Summer 2011)

June 30, 2011

Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets

Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, Debra Satz (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 252 pp., $35 cloth.

Ethan B. Kapstein (Reviewer)

With this new work Debra Satz has managed that rare feat of producing a book that should appeal both to a wide audience as well as to academic specialists. By transforming the market into a site for managing social relations, as opposed to one that simply exists for the conduct of economic exchange, she provides a fresh approach to economic and political philosophy. Given its combination of penetrating analysis and lively writing, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale would be an excellent text for use in advanced undergraduate and graduate classes on economic justice, as well as superb supplementary reading for a wide range of courses across the humanities and social sciences, including economic sociology, political science, public policy, business, and, of course, economics itself.

Satz's fundamental argument is a normative one—namely, that markets should serve to promote a "society of equals." In defining the society of equals, she relies heavily on T. H. Marshall's famous discussion that examines citizenship in terms of each member of society having equal access to political and civil rights and freedoms, along with economic rights "to a threshold of economic welfare." Viewed from this perspective, markets can become "noxious" when their operation depends on the weakness of one party versus another, or when it generates extreme harms for individuals or for society as a whole.

Specifically, markets that, through their operation, reproduce inequalities—for example, markets for female prostitution, which reproduce inequalities between men and women, or for child labor, which reproduce the vulnerability of children—need to be corrected. But it does not follow for Satz—and this is a wonderfully refreshing aspect of the book, even if one might disagree with her conclusions—that prostitution or child labor should be banned outright; instead, her focus is on finding ways to strengthen the agency of women and children through a variety of policy instruments—for example, by making children's education accessible to all. Satz develops her ideas on markets theoretically in the first several chapters of the book and then applies these ideas to specific cases, including the sex trade, child labor, and the sale of human organs, making for an argument that is not afraid to tackle tough problems.

Satz's core idea of markets as vehicles that should be used for promoting human equality is an intriguing one that awaits further development beyond the treatment accorded here. For example, she does not define a "society of equals" to the extent needed to operationalize her framework, and of course it should be admitted that this exercise is hardly straightforward. After all, even welfare states around the world differ significantly with respect to how they define "equality," and in particular in whether they focus on equality of opportunity (the Anglo-Saxon case) or equality of outcomes (the Scandinavian model). Indeed, these differences are what led John Rawls, in The Law of Peoples, to cast doubt on the merits of a Rawlsian social contract at the global level. This is hardly trivial for Satz's discussion, since the organization of markets is quite different even among the industrial countries, suggestive not only of the varieties of capitalism but of the diversity of what constitutes politically and socially acceptable market experiences more generally. Satz, for example, seems to believe that both public and private education can comfortably coexist in a society of equals, but there are probably many social democrats who would dispute that notion.

This observation about the varieties of market experiences points to perhaps the most surprising void in the book. Satz sets up her study as a discussion between economics and philosophy, between proponents of market efficiency on the one hand and those concerned with broader social purposes—such as promoting equality—on the other. Somehow she overlooks the now vast literature on the economics and sociology of institutions—much of which is generated in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Satz is based (at Stanford), and which has as its objective an examination of the market as a site of social relations and political contention. Reference to this modern literature (she does, in fairness, devote a chapter to the "classical" political economy of such figures as Adam Smith and Karl Marx) would have given the book a richer flavor, since it would have allowed the author to launch outright into the thesis that markets are contested for all sorts of reasons (economic, political, ethical), and then to state with clarity and force what role the philosopher—as opposed to the sociologist or political scientist—can play in illuminating how this contention ought to play out in the interests of a just society. Instead, the book sometimes has the tone of setting up a straw-man argument about the theoretically impoverished view of markets delivered by contemporary social science, when there exists a fine body of work that problematizes the market in important ways.

One other technique that some readers are likely to find objectionable is Satz's effort to score points on behalf of her argument through the use of extreme examples. To cite just one such instance, she defends the concept of specific egalitarianism (the idea that egalitarian objectives can be attained by focusing on providing the least advantaged with such targeted transfers as food stamps or education vouchers, as opposed to unconditional cash transfers) by asserting that policies should motivate parents to send their kids to school rather than just give adults the money they need for their children's education (say, through unconditional income transfers), since "some parents are selfish or shortsighted" (p. 101). This raises the question, Should public policy necessarily be designed around what some "bad apples" might do? Should it be paternalistic? In economics, the focus tends to be not on what people at the behavioral extremes would do, but instead on what people do on average.

Satz's use of extreme, or what she calls "Titanic," cases raises another intriguing perspective; indeed, let us take that very case by way of illustration. To demonstrate how vulnerabilities might be classbased, Satz points to Thomas Schelling's account that the S.S. Titanic had only enough lifeboats for first-class passengers. This may lead the reader to believe that rich passengers were those who were actually saved when the ship sank. However, she ignores the fact that the captain adhered to a policy of "women and children first"—regardless of class and no matter the disposition of the lifeboats. This suggests, as Jon Elster argued in The Cement of Society, that competing norms play a powerful role in shaping social relations, including economic relations; indeed, much of Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize-winning work has also emphasized the role of norms in economic behavior, generating outcomes that might be unexpected from a "rational" perspective. One norm that is now the focus of considerable attention by economists is "fairness." Gametheoretic models like the "ultimatum game" reveal that people act in ways that are contrary to rational choice, in that they are usually fairer than they need to be. Thus, the possibility that the gap between economic thought and philosophic reflection might be smaller than one might suppose.

Despite any shortcomings of her argument, the emphasis that Satz places on the role that markets can play in promoting—or undermining—relations based on equality will further advance the debate about how norms influence market processes and outcomes. This is a significant, well-written, and cogently argued book that deserves a wide readership.


Ethan B. Kapstein is Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs and Dennis O'Connor Regent's Professor of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of
Economic Justice in an Unfair World (Princeton, 2006) among many other works in the field of international economic relations.