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

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

Debra Satz

New York: Oxford University Press, 2010 (252 pages)

This book is third in the Oxford Political Philosophy series and offers a rich argument about the morality of markets and the limits of our political and philosophical categories when looking at various markets, such as those in human organs or child labor.

Debra Satz argues as a political philosopher and presents a book centered on her strong social democratic thesis "that certain goods need to be provided outside the market if citizens are to be equals" (208). She distinguishes types of markets and claims that modern economists give us a flattened, one-dimensional view of economics and markets. This view fails to account for the way markets not only allocate resources but also shape our politics, culture, and identity. She brings out the background of markets: property rights, educational opportunities, a free flow of information, and a regulatory regime.

Her analysis begins by comparing modern economics with Smith and Marx, who had a richer view of the types of markets in the economy and the effects on individuals and the wider society. She takes from Smith and Marx the insight that certain exchanges influence the people we become, especially in labor markets. Her claim is that some markets shape individuals and society in problematic ways and that some specific goods need to be shielded from the operation of the market.

She turns to political philosophy and engages with general and specific egalitarians. General egalitarians seek to rectify distributional inequalities with a tax and transfer system. Examining Dworkin as a proponent of this view, she believes Dworkin to be mistaken in supposing that the market is intrinsically connected to the distributive implications of treating people with equal concern and respect. Her major criticism is that "Dworkin's market scheme offers no guidance as to what is problematic about current job structures or the gendered division of labor" (72).

She agrees with specific egalitarians that we must differentiate between kinds of markets, and that markets can change and degrade the meaning of a good, such as blood. She disagrees with the reasons they give, which are based on "appeal to particular views about human flourishing or the meaning of goods" (209). Her disagreement is clarified in her discussion of the particular noxious markets she examines in the book.

Satz offers a scheme to evaluate noxious markets. She gives four parameters for a noxious market, two relating to the participants--weak agency and asymmetric knowledge--and two relating to the outcomes--harmful outcomes for participants and extremely harmful outcomes for society.

She names surrogate contracts and advertising to children as examples of noxious markets that fail on weak agency or highly asymmetric knowledge and agency. She uses bonded labor as an example of a market that harms the individual and the general society. Her central concern is the political concern of preserving equality among citizens, an aim opposed to ideas of caste, hereditary privilege, and unequal birthright.

Her conclusion that a market is noxious does not mean that we should ban it. She admits that at times her parameters conflict with other values and with those of each other and that she has not settled how to make these values operative.

In the second half of the book, she applies the theory to specific markets: women's reproduction, prostitution, child labor, bonded labor, and human organs. She calls attention to moral concerns that are not captured by economics or tax and transfer perspectives.

Her discussion of these markets is detailed, interesting, and ultimately unsatisfactory. Because she is concerned not to take an essentialist perspective, she cannot condemn surrogacy contracts (or prostitution) on the basis of harm to women; still less on the basis of harm to children.

Current gender inequality, in Satz's view, lies at the heart of what is wrong with pregnancy contracts. The problem with commodifying women's reproductive labor is not that it degrades the special nature of reproductive labor or alienates women from a core part of their identities but that it reinforces (to the extent that it does) a traditional gender-hierarchical division of labor. Under different background conditions, such contracts would be less objectionable (131).

She recognizes that there are still problems and offers some other recommendations to limit these contracts. Her reasoning on these two cases, surrogacy and prostitution, does not include, as her chapter on markets in human kidneys does, the idea that "we have good reason to draw a 'prophylactic line' around the body, a line that would prevent body parts becoming part of social resources" (201), which is a significant omission.

Her chapters on bonded labor and child labor sit more easily within her aim and her insights about the effect of the market on the perceived equality of citizens. She notes, for example, that one family's sending their child out to work may harm the child but increase the family's welfare. However when child labor is common, the result is a depression of adult wages. This is her standard of extreme harms to society and is a point that is well taken.

The significant weakness in the book comes from the author's commitment to being nonessentialist, which leads to conclusions such as the need to regulate surrogacy only because it continues stereotypes of women as baby machines. Any claim that the physical experience of conceiving and bearing a child has significance is ignored. The child, of course, only has moral status if it is "wanted." Further, she asserts that surrogacy does not commodify children, but she presents no evidence for her assertion.

Satz is to be commended for realizing that simply condemning markets may produce worse outcomes than regulating existing markets. Her detailed argumentation also clarifies the differences in philosophical assumptions that lie behind our moral disputes. Overall, this is a thought-provoking and interesting book, which advances an interdisciplinary conversation.

--Christine M. Fletcher (e-mail:

Benedictine University, Lisle, Illinois
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Author:Fletcher, Christine M.
Publication:Journal of Markets & Morality
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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