Blogs & Comment

Chris MacDonald: Should the free market have limits?

Should everything be for sale?



Should everything be for sale? Or are their things that should never be available via the market? Why? We can all name things that shouldn’t be bought and sold freely, and some that shouldn’t be sold at all. Human beings, for example, or votes. Or intercontinental ballistic missiles or crack cocaine. But what’s the unifying principle here? Some of these things can’t be sold because they’re dangerous. Others can’t be sold because doing so is an affront to human dignity. Other cases are less clear. Is there a clear way to frame just what the limits of markets are?

Two philosopher pals of mine at Georgetown University—Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski—are writing a book on the topic, a book to be called Markets Without Limits. According to their Facebook page, the book “defends the argument that if it’s morally all right for you to possess or exchange something for free, then it is morally all right for you to have or exchange it for money.”

Interestingly, Brennan and Jaworski are not just defending that view, but actually putting it into practice. How? They are themselves pushing the limits of what can rightly be sold by selling something that generally, in most cases, cannot be bought: they’re selling acknowledgments in the preface of their book. For a small fee, they’ll list you alongside the people and institutions to whom they owe genuine thanks for having contributed to the writing of their book.

Clearly, it’s a bit of a publicity stunt, aimed at generating buzz for their book. But the stunt is generating buzz precisely because their question is an interesting one. Acknowledgments in books aren’t generally sold. But is there a reason—a good reason—why that’s the case? What’s the principle involved? If you think acknowledgments shouldn’t be sold, why not? By engaging in a toy debate of their own creating, Brennan and Jaworski are giving us a concrete, non-hypothetical example, one that lets them control the relevant variables, such as price, transparency, and so on. And this lets them illustrate their point: acknowledgments can’t generally be bought and sold, but it’s not inherently wrong to do so. As long as it’s done right, with the right kinds of transparency and limits, this actually seems OK. Or does it? Feel free to comment below, or on Brennan’s blog entry about the scheme.

Disclosure: I think the idea is fun and interesting, so I’ve ponied up $25 to buy an acknowledgment myself, more precisely an acknowledgement of my blog. (But no, writing this blog entry is emphatically not part of the deal!)

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management