In their book Markets without Limits, Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski (2016, 15) indicate three possibilities: (1) wrongful possession, (2) incidental limits, and (3) inherent limits. Roughly, wrongful possession means that it is wrong for a person to possess an item or engage in an activity regardless of whether they buy or sell it, therefore it is also wrong to buy and sell it; incidental limits mean that the item or activity may be bought or sold under some conditions and not under others; and inherent limits mean that the item or activity, while permissible if given or done for free, should never be sold for money. The authors focus on arguing against the third possibility. In all three cases, Brennan and Jaworksi assume that the items or activities involved have the *possibility* of being bought and sold–that is, they have the possibility of being commodified. Brennan and Jaworski tend to word their analysis in a way that is biased toward goods rather than services. However, they do acknowledge activities and services. Hence, their general thesis: if you may do it for free, you may do it for money.
I would like to suggest a fourth possibility: there are permissible activities that, by their nature (structure), cannot possibly be bought or sold. This suggests a different kind of *inherent* limit to markets: (4) there are activities that are permissible to do for free but that are *impossible* to do for money under any context. Examples: genuine charity, romantic love, and genuine friendship. Before you get discouraged or encouraged by my mention of romantic love and genuine friendship, I want to make it clear that I will here focus on the example of genuine charity.
One might object that this fourth possibility, even if it does exist, is unnecessary in a debate over commodification. If something *cannot* be commodified, then there is no need to debate over *whether* it is commodified. I have three answers to this objection. First, these activities can be *confused with* or *mistaken for* services that are bought and sold. Second, the mere possibility of these activities sets *inherent* limits to markets (understood in the sense of the social space in which things are bought and sold). Third, if there are permissible activities that, by their nature, cannot possibly be bought and sold, then Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis, strictly, as stated, is wrong. I will here focus on the third answer: Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis, strictly, as stated, is wrong.
May implies can. If you *cannot* possibly do an activity for money, then there is no possibility that you *may* do that activity for money. On the other hand, if you *may* do it for free, then there must be the possibility that you *can* do it for free. Crucially, even if you may do it for free, it might still be impossible for you to do it for money. This impossibility need not be merely incidental to the activity; rather, the impossibility can be inherent to the activity. This sets the fourth possibility apart from the third possibility offered by Brennan and Jaworski. In the third possibility, it is inherently immoral to commodify the activity. In the fourth possibility, it is inherently impossible to commodify the activity. In the current context, I will set aside the examples of romantic love and genuine friendship, because their definitions are more elaborate than genuine charity. I will therefore, for the sake of a concise and preliminary argument, merely address genuine charity.
Thesis: there are permissible activities that, by their nature, cannot possibly be bought or sold. Example: genuine charity. Genuine charity is activity that intentionally benefits another party without itself being (monetary) compensation for some past benefit, and without itself requiring (monetary) compensation from any party. To be sure, the giver of genuine charity can obtain psychic benefit from her own act of genuine charity by bringing about a more preferred state of affairs over a less preferred state of affairs; however, it is impossible for her to do so in a way that itself provides (monetary) compensation for some past benefit or that requires (monetary) compensation to her from another party.
Possible objection: one can hire “charitable” services.
Answer: paid staff of “charitable” services, insofar as they receive compensation, in merely their capacity as paid staff, are not genuinely charitable. However, they can engage in co-production with genuine charity that is in the form of volunteer activities. Volunteers can thereby add value via genuine charity above and beyond merely monetary and material donations. In any case, charitable services are compensated, while genuine charity neither is compensation nor is compensated. Accordingly, engaging in the activity of genuine charity merely *with* money–that is, by directly transferring the ownership of money to the recipient of genuine charity or by hiring (charitable) services–is not the same thing as doing genuine charity *for* money. Indeed, engaging in any type of activity merely *with* money is not the same thing as engaging in that type of activity *for* money. Doing genuine charity for money is impossible.
Conclusion: genuine charity is permissible to do for free, but genuine charity is impossible to do for money. Therefore, there is at least one type of activity that is permissible but that cannot possibly be bought or sold. If you may do something for free, then it might be impossible–under any market conditions–to do it for money. Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis, strictly, as stated, is wrong.
Possible objection: this is just a tautology. If you do an instance of some type of activity for free, then you do not do that instance for money. However, that does not entail that you may not do an instance of that type of activity for money.
Answer: the conclusion above is not a tautology. The conclusion above is: if you may do a *type* of activity for free, it might be impossible–under any market conditions–to do that *type* of activity for money. You may do genuine charity for free, but it is impossible to do genuine charity for money.
Using John Searle’s (1995, 28) formula in social ontology–“X counts as Y in C”–I think the key here is differentiating between the X and Y terms. Roughly, the X term refers to merely a physical object or process (“brute” fact), while the Y term refers to a mental or subjective phenomenon (“observer-relative” fact) through which people assign the X term with a particular function; lastly, the C term is the social context in which an X term counts as a Y term. Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis *seems* correct to the extent that it refers only to the X term. If you may do or give a physical process or object for free, you may do or trade that physical process or object for money. However, their thesis ultimately fails if one brings in the Y term.
We can restate the three possibilities of wrongful possession, incidental limits, and inherent limits as follows: (1) there are X or Y terms that are inherently bad to do or possess regardless of whether they are bought or sold, therefore it is also wrong to buy and sell them; (2) there are X terms that are bad to buy or sell because they count as Y1 in some context or set of contexts C1, but which are permissible to sell as Y2 in another context or set of contexts C2; (3) there are X or Y terms that are permissible to have or do for free but which are *never* permissible to buy or sell.
It should be clear now that 3 is true. Genuine charity is permissible to do for free, but genuine charity is neither possible nor permissible to do for money. That means Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis is false. What is crucial to understand is that, using Searle’s formulation, genuine charity is defined in Y terms rather than merely X terms.
I’m concerned about the type of commodification that involves things that *can* possibly be for sale, such as charitable services or babysitting or prostitution being confused with or mistaken for things that *cannot* possibly be for sale, such as genuine charity or genuine parental love or romantic relationship. More generally, I’m concerned about the type of commodification that confuses things that one does for free with things that one does for money. Genuine charity, parental love, and romantic relationships are things that are possible to do for free but which are *impossible* to do for money. However, the challenge is that activities that are possible to do for free but are impossible to do for money can only be defined using Y terms rather than merely X terms.
Suggested restatement of Brennan and Jaworski’s thesis: if (1) you may do it for free and (2) it is possible to do it for money, then (3) you may do it for money. This way, if one denies the consequent 3, on the grounds that it is impossible to do it for money, then one can merely negate 2, leaving 1 intact. Without this restatement, one can easily refute their thesis by denying the consequent.
Brennan, Jason and Peter M. Jaworski. 2016. Markets without Limits. New York: Routledge.
Searle, John. 1995. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: The Free Press (Simon & Schuster).