Paperbacks, human kidneys, and other noxious markets
by Dustin Kurtz
Repugnant markets are, more or less, trades in goods that for one reason or another are found culturally objectionable. Roth’s general point in the paper under discussion is that markets in these goods are constrained by these cultural objections, above and beyond any governmental regulation which may also be brought to bear on them. Given examples are a market in human organs, or in babies. Ingrid Robeyns of Crooked Timber summarizes him:
We (or perhaps better: most of us) find such markets repugnant, and this repugnancy works as a constraint on such a market. Roth argues that economists should take this repugnancy constraint into account when studying markets, but also argues that economists have “an important education role of pointing to inefficiencies and trade-offs, and costs and benefits” [of the persistence of such repugnancy] (p. 54)
This is, of course, a prime example of the hilarities that pass for serious work in economics. Roth — who won a Nobel Prize, let me remind you — is reminding us all that when a thing is culturally disgusting, a society is less likely to want that thing to be bought or sold. Oh and, shockingly, the standards for what is disgusting differ between and even within cultures. The best part is of course that last phrase quoted by Robeyns above. To wit: economists, true scions of the free market, will save us from our irrational distaste for baby selling, in part by simply discussing such loci of disgust.
I mention this only to ask: why are books not a repugnant market?
I don’t mean a market in specific objectionable books. Many inherently noxious books are kept in bookstores and libraries for scholarly reasons: Mein Kampf, most obviously, is widely available in the United States. The paranoid’s classic Behold a Pale Horse by William Cooper is a brisk seller at stores, though it contains, unmodified, the entire text of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In the United States the picture is made murky by civil liberties, and thankfully so. (If a love of books can teach us one thing it is simply that true humanism revels in murkiness and complication.)
No, I wonder, rather, does the entire book market function as if books are repugnant. Robeyns also looks at the work of economist Debra Satz on these noxious markets. Satz lists four criteria by which we might predict whether a commodity is likely to function as if it were repugnant. Again, Robeyns summarizes:
The first parameter is harmful outcomes, either to participants in the markets or to third agents. An example is a market that leads to a fueling of a civil war or to genocide. The second parameter is extreme harm to society, which can be the case when the market undermines the social background needed for people to stand in a relation of equality to each other (these are the “preconditions necessary for individuals to make claims on one another and interact without having to beg or to push others around”. p. 95). The third parameter is very weak or highly asymmetrical knowledge and agency among participants on the market. This is not just a matter of the case of imperfect or asymmetric information, but also of not knowing one’s future preferences. An example is a woman who never had a child who is selling her ability to have one. One could also argue that many financial products that have been sold before the financial crisis may be goods of that sorts – costumers often had no clue what they were buying since the products were so complicated, but the authority of ‘financial specialists’ lead them to do so. The fourth and final parameter is underlying extreme vulnerabilities of some of the participants on the market. An example is a market where participants have highly unequal needs for the good or service that is being sold.
Books, and the writing within qualify, it is apparent, for all four parameters. Books have certainly been central to harmful outcomes to involved individuals (papercuts really sting) and society as a whole. Excluding even the obvious examples of Adolf Hitler and blood libel mentioned above, think of the harm that could have been avoided without the writings of the Chicago School. The third parameter and fourth parameters are just as true, certainly for textbooks, which students do indeed need, and whose eventual worth they will have no ability to predict.
Why then, are books not an objectionable commodity, like human kidneys? Is it simply a question of perceived net benefit? Is it just the nature of what a book is, so that to talk of them as objectionable or not loses meaning in light of their real nature, as vehicles for individual texts which may in themselves be repugnant or not? I leave it to our readers to answer.
Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.