In 2010, Debra Satz published “Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale The Moral Limits of Markets.” The work is a fairly standard leftist book critiquing free-markets and advocating the banning of certain types of markets, namely what Satz calls ‘Noxious Markets.’ The book is rich in topics for discussion and this brief post focuses on one such discussion.
The issue is agency, which is generally synonymous with autonomy. For Satz, markets that are vile, produce negative externalities, or significantly compromise the agent’s autonomy are ‘noxious markets.’ Satz argues that these noxious markets ought to be banned. Examples of these types of markets include women’s reproductive labour, women’s sexual labour, child labour, voluntary slavery (I’m suspicious if there is such a thing), and some types of markets for organs, namely kidneys. A particular example, prostitution, I think should illustrate quite nicely what Satz is getting at and at once criticize free-market adherents.
For many free-market adherents, the first principle to judge by whether a market is moral or not is whether or not the transaction was voluntary on the part of the buyer and seller. Thus, for many free-market adherents this alone is enough to justify a transaction. However, the entire justificatory nature of the transaction hinges on whether or not the transaction was truly voluntary. Certainly most persons’ moral intuitions regarding the ‘voluntaryness’ of buying or selling bubble gum are without controversy. In fact there doesn’t seem to be anything moral at all about buying or selling bubble gum. Yet change bubble gum to vagina and the moral landscape changes. There aren’t laws against buying or selling bubble gum, there are however laws against buying sexual labour. Yet there seem to be many cases of voluntary prostitution. So where did our moral intuitions go wrong? Here is one way to argue against allowing markets in prostitution.
1. Only markets that accept only voluntary transactions ought to be legal.
2. Voluntary transactions are those transactions that the agent does without duress or circumstances that significantly reduce the human dignity of the agent.
3. Markets in prostitution involve situations that significantly compromise the agency and dignity of the prostitute.
4. Transactions that significantly compromise the agency or dignity of the buyer or seller are not voluntary transactions.
5. Therefore markets in prostitution ought not to be legal.
I suppose the retort from the libertarian might go several ways. The libertarian might argue that it really was the choice of the individual to become a prostitute, that the prima facie act of becoming a prostitute reveals that person’s preference for being a prostitute. The libertarian might argue that the alternative, perhaps starving, is worse than letting the prostitute work; furthermore the hardcore libertarian might even argue that denying the the prostitute the legal ability to work is itself an affront to the dignity and autonomy of the agent since the state would seemingly know better than the agent as to what kind of work they ought to take.
Regarding the first, this sort of argument seems to take voluntary as ‘free to choose’ and makes such an action quite broad. This kind of freedom seems to take little account of difficult circumstances that may unduly influence a person to act in such a way that they might not have acted if the circumstances were not placed on them. Such a freedom seems akin to saying that the person with the gun to their head still acts freely under the circumstances placed by the dictates of the gun-holder; what a poverty of freedom. Perhaps we could even classify this type of circumstance as a form of coercion, however much tainted that word has become. There does seem to be something fundamentally different about buying or selling bubble gum and buying or selling sex. Being a participant in the market for bubble gum does not seem to be a function of my general well-being while ‘choosing’ to become a prostitute seems to depend highly on the size of my bank account, whether my child is starving, and how bleak the local job market is. I think Satz here makes a good criticism of the tendency and outright practice within modern economics to treat all markets as the same while mainly addressing only the efficiency of the market which conveniently ignores the potential moral import of certain markets. The classical economists recognized that not all markets were the same; the market for capital, labour and land were separate and were treated differently.
In any case, this type of situation is difficult to reconcile for the libertarian. The libertarian is in quite an unenviable position of having to either say that yes, the action to become a prosititute was indeed freely chosen or that the State ought to ban such a market. Yet the libertarian is not alone in this difficulty. Philosophers like Satz have to provide some kind of definition as to what human dignity is or what qualifies as sufficiently coercive. Those types of descriptions are notoriously difficult to provide.