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Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale. The Moral Limits of Markets

Marc Fleurbaey
p. 467-471
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Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale. The Moral Limits of Markets, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, xi + 252 pages, ISBN 978-019531159-4

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Crédits : Oxford University Press

1There are free market ideologues who believe that opening markets always create new opportunities for welfare improvement, and egalitarians who are suspicious of all markets in which the participants have unequal endowments. Debra Satz, in this cogent book, argues for a more complex approach in which not all markets are the same, and some are more problematic than others. In her theory, there are four aspects of a market that can, independently or jointly, make it “noxious”: first, some markets may have extremely bad consequences, in terms of welfare or status, for some of the traders, especially when risk is involved. The typical example is a credit market involving clauses of bonded labor or slavery for default. Second, some markets may have bad consequences for society at large when they reinforce discrimination or inequality of status. A market for votes, for instance, may create a two-tier society in which some members throw themselves into a lower category by selling their right to codetermine collective life. Third, some markets may involve asymmetry in the agency of some traders, because of insufficient information, knowledge, or ability to understand or forecast the consequences of a deal. For instance, it may be hard for a woman renting her womb to forecast how she will feel about bearing a child for someone else and giving it away. Fourth, some markets may depend very much on the vulnerability of one party to the trade. For instance, in some contexts dangerous jobs are taken, without proper compensation for the risks involved, by workers who have no alternative.

2All markets may be affected in some trades by one or several of these problematic features, but certain markets are structurally dependent on them, and these are the markets, Satz argues, that are rightly viewed with suspicion. The policy implication is not always prohibition, as she convincingly writes, because the consequences of prohibition may be worse than the market itself, for instance when a ban on child labor feeds underground child prostitution. Alternative policies may involve regulation (e.g., to avert the worst consequences), or public intervention in the form of redistribution (to alleviate vulnerability) or diffusion of information (to remedy the weak agency problem).

3This is the main message of the book, and it makes a lot of good sense. The structure of the book is as follows. In the first chapters, she reviews and criticizes two views. One is the approach, attributed to economists, that focuses on efficiency and considers that markets are problematic only when there are “market failures”, such as lack of competition (market power) or externalities. Satz does not mention in this part that the main market failure studied by economists over the last three decades is due to asymmetry of information, a phenomenon that resonates with her “weak agency” item. But she is right that most of economics focuses on efficiency issues. In particular, the economics of asymmetric information typically argues that markets are too narrow because the asymmetry in information creates a lack of trust. What Satz has in mind regarding weak agency is somewhat different, and has to do with the danger for weak parties of being exploited. This danger, by putting off some potential traders, may reduce the size of such markets. While economists would focus on the idea that with more information such markets could be expanded, the concern Satz addresses is that there is a sense in which without restoration of informational symmetry such markets are too big because they harm some weak parties to the trade—a judgment that has to do with equity rather than efficiency.

4An interesting part of the chapter on economics is her plea for a reconsideration of the intelligence of the classical economists in these matters. She gives very good quotations from the Wealth of Nations that show Smith’s acute understanding of the problems of the labor market and the credit market. In particular, Smith was well aware of the fact that certain forms of subordinated and repetitive work alter the ability of the worker to lead an autonomous life. More recent economic theory in which individuals’ preferences are exogenous and fixed appears insufficient in this light.

5Incidentally, she ignores the important branch of neoclassical economics that studies equity and justice, and attributes to economics in general a lack of interest for distributive considerations that is, fortunately, not shared by all economists. It would have been interesting to examine whether the economic literature on fair allocation has anything to say about noxious markets. It seems to me that what it points to is the fourth item in Satz’ list, namely, the problem of vulnerability and unequal endowments. But this literature would suggest that all markets in which parties meet with unequal endowments are problematic, an idea that Satz does not consider seriously because her goal is to make practically relevant distinctions between markets in societies with a degree of inequality as in the USA today.

6She does, however, examine the liberal egalitarian approach in political philosophy, which has a very similar foundation as the economic theory of fair allocation. What she criticizes about this view is the idea that, absent inequalities, a market with fully able participants is unproblematic. Given the list of four problematic items introduced above, it is easy to see why she rejects this view. For instance, able participants may take excessive risks of extremely bad consequences. Additionally, she also examines and rejects the “specific egalitarian” approaches that consider it intrinsically bad when some things are traded and unequally distributed, because it degrades their sacred value. As there is nothing problematic in the market for Bibles, for instance, she argues that it is not obvious what the link is between the sacred value of a good and its equal distribution. Moreover, the value of a good, such as sexual relations, is sometimes controversial or subject to a great diversity of views. Specific egalitarianism may be right in some instances but, she claims, it does not give us a sufficient theory of noxious markets.

7After having criticized the efficiency approach and the egalitarian approach for failing to offer a full account of noxious markets, Satz develops her own theory, which has been summarized in the beginning of this review. In the last part of the book she examines various examples and applies her theory to them. The first example is markets in women’s reproductive labor. In this case she argues that the main problem lies in the consequences for society because commodifying reproductive labor reinforces gender inequality of status and promotes prejudices about the role of women in society. She then makes the same argument about female prostitution, while insisting that there is a great diversity of cases in the market for sex, some of which also involve bad consequences for the seller (risk of violence) and vulnerability concerns. Obviously, her theory implies a different treatment of male prostitution because the concern for gender inequality vanishes in this case. She also examines markets for child labor, bonded labor, and organs. In the case of child labor, she takes the interests of children and the development of their capabilities as the main guideline, concluding that abusive forms of child labor are much more problematic (involving extreme harm to the individual) than other forms. The case of bonded labor is treated in the light of the four items and all appear relevant, the most important problem being the inequalities in power and the encroachment on basic freedoms generated by a widespread practice of bonded labor. Finally, markets for organs appear problematic on all four counts when they are unregulated, but with substantial restrictions certain forms of organ selling appear tolerable. This is a case in which the empirical facts about the consequences are important and may depend on the context. The motivation of donors is famously known to be sensitive to the context of the donation. There may be other consequences as well. For instance, she highlights the example of Indian poor being refused credit when they do not accept to put their organs as collaterals. The market for organs therefore generates externalities on other markets and creates additional inequalities.

8This book offers very reasonable and well-thought arguments and will serve as a very useful guide in the recurring debates about controversial markets. It seems to me that Satz could have built an even more ambitious set of conclusions from her theory. Rather than thinking of the four critical items as features that render a market problematic when they are strong enough, one could critically examine all segments of a market, or even every individual trade, in this light. The distinction to be made would then not be between acceptable markets and problematic markets, but between acceptable trades and problematic trades. Problematic trades may occur in every market. Insofar as such problematic trades occur, a need for regulation may arise in every market. For instance, she sometimes takes the market for apples as contrasting with the problematic cases under examination. As a matter of fact, the food market is a very delicate one, with problems of potentially extremely bad consequences (poisoning), of weak agency due to asymmetric information, and even of vulnerability (the cheapest calories are found in unhealthy food). Even the consequences for social relations can be a concern insofar as obesity is a marker of social standing. The food market is heavily regulated for some of these reasons, and it is often argued that additional measures should be taken, e.g., regarding access to healthy food in poor neighborhoods.

9Another example of how Satz’ approach may push the practical conclusions farther is provided by the labor market. Satz does mention that some of the problems she describes about reproductive labor carry over to labor in general: “wage labor, like contract pregnancy, places the productive capacities of one group of citizens at the service and under the control of another.” (132) However, in the applied part of the book she focuses on bonded labor and emphasizes the contrast, rather than the similarities, with wage labor. Yet, as she recalls in the beginning of the book, Adam Smith regarded wage labor with great suspicion, and this also holds true for John Stuart Mill (who features less prominently in the book), or even the neoclassical Leon Walras. Of course, the modern regulated labor market is not the same as what Smith observed, but regulation has reduced the most salient problems without eliminating all of them. In particular, many workers still endure degrading conditions, subordinated status, and fail to enjoy autonomy and participation in important decisions affecting their interests. Satz writes: “The central idea I defend here is that where certain competitive markets undermine or block egalitarian relationships between people, there is a case for market regulation, even when such markets are otherwise efficient or arise on the basis of individual rational choice.” (173) It seems to me that this line of argument provides a sufficient basis for imposing much more democracy in the workplace than is currently imposed by law and regulation in western societies.

10In conclusion, this is a beautiful book that enriches egalitarian liberal theory by defending an elaborate conception of the potential problematic features of market trading. Satz acknowledges the good properties of market trading, and does not argue for prohibition whenever a problematic feature is identified. Her analysis firmly grounds the ethical assessment of market exchanges in the consequences for the individuals and for society, as well as in the context of the trades. While she does not venture on utopian terrain and prefers to praise the virtues of capitalism as compared to feudalism, her theory could be used for the defense of an alternative model of a market economy, one in which subordinated labor would be not just mildly regulated as it is today, but eliminated.

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Marc Fleurbaey, « Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale. The Moral Limits of Markets », Œconomia, 1-3 | 2011, 467-471.

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Marc Fleurbaey, « Debra Satz, Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale. The Moral Limits of Markets », Œconomia [En ligne], 1-3 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2011, consulté le 26 avril 2017. URL :

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Marc Fleurbaey

Princeton University

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Les contenus d’Œconomia sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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