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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/5630/does-the-market-commodify-everything/

Does the Market Commodify Everything?

September 18, 2006 by

It is not an unusual argument: the free market allegedly “commodifies” everything, and reduces all of life to a matter of dollars and cents. Is that really what the market does? Actually, the market is merely a descriptive term of the voluntary exchanges that take place in society. It is the state that uses all people and things without regard to preferences, right, and mutual agreement. the individual has no recourse other than to accept whatever the state determines with regard to how much of his property will be expropriated, what his children will be taught in school, or where he must be sent to fight and die. FULL ARTICLE

{ 12 comments }

faultolerant September 18, 2006 at 9:58 am

This article has an interesting perspective: Defense of a concept (which needs no defense) via the damnation of another concept. Talk about an effort in mental masturbation.

Put simply: “The Market” (Meaning all of us) do/does commodify everything. That’s called decision making. Even if we’re not measuring everything in dollars&cents, each and every decision has pro/con arguments and we all weigh the marginal benefit from the voluntary transaction.

To spend so much time and vitriol condemning the state’s actions (on which he’s right, BTW – but irrelevent) doesn’t mean “The Market” is free from “commoditization”. Even if “The Market” does commodify everything – from products, services and social interactions – so what? How is this necessarily a bad thing?

This entire article conflates two unrelated (except on a tertiary basis) phenomenon into somehow having a causal relationship. “The State” may not value humans, their property and their liberty – no argument. However, what does that have to do with the free market in goods and services? How does that particular concept have any bearing whatsoever on whether the voluntary markeplace assigns value to labor, products and social interactions?

I assert these two constructs are only marginally related and not in the way promulgated by the author. Of course, opinions are like…..well, you get the picture.

Tom Woods September 18, 2006 at 11:23 am

My critic asks, with regard to the existence of market prices, “How is this necessarily a bad thing?”

It isn’t a bad thing. The point of the article is that prices have earned an unjustly bad rap, and that the mere existence of prices does not mean that everyone is thereby led to act only in a purely materialistic dollars-and-cents manner. (There is nothing wrong with buying mouthwash from a purely dollars-and-cents point of view, but the point of the “commodification” argument is that all things (including human beings, abstract principles, etc.) and not just consumer goods, begin to be treated as mere objects.)

The main point of the piece is to consider the suggestion that the market leads people to conceive of everything, human beings included, as a “thing to be used.” It is, rather, the state that behaves this way. Prices, the very mechanism that comes in for condemnation in the “commodification” criticism, are what prevent people in the market from being used, or treated like garbage. Once again, the article concludes, a typical criticism of the market is not only wrongheaded, but overlooks that the state is by far the worst offender.

Dr. Mark Thornton September 18, 2006 at 11:47 am

Woods’ point is both timely and important. The commodification argument allows the State to get away with murder, even though it is the real villain when it comes to treating people as commodities.

Look at what happens when the State is allowed to invoke the commodification argument in the case of human organ transplants. The State does not allow human organs to be bought and sold for purposes of organ transplantation. [of course a large percentage of transplants result from voluntary donations among family members--we are not talking the New York Stock Exchange here] The State declares that it gets to decide who gives and who gets organs. The result is a completely unnecessary shortage of human organs for transplantation. People suffer, people die as a result. In fact, more people die each year because of the shortage than died as a result of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Tens of thousands suffer awaiting transplants. The state even prevents voluntarily donated cataveric organs from reaching qualified recipients.

Commodification my butt!

Som September 18, 2006 at 1:49 pm

Ahhh, so we see that the market respects each person’s freedom of choice, and thus the essence of what it is to be human, where the state does not. While the market can “commodify” certain qualities and abilities of a human being, it never “commodifies” self-ownership. It seems that for the state to exist at all, it must do otherwise.

F L Light September 18, 2006 at 3:47 pm

Six couplets on the Market

In free association traffickers
Assemble, not concerned with arbiters.

The folk’s innocuous rule in commerce should
Negate all public force with private good.

No little effort liberty demands
As each man divers tactics understands.

The folk’s innocuous interplay, no need
Of interventions having, comes good speed.

Possessing the exuberance of peace,
Ungoverned markets govern our increase.

The people’s innocent pursuit of trade
Makes up the state with government unmade.

eric September 18, 2006 at 5:54 pm

The writer, faultolerant, says that the article contrasts two concepts that are “only marginally related”. I would argue that these two concepts, market and government, are not only related, but are mutually exclusive concepts. The relation that maps one into the other is “not”. Market, does “not” use physical force, or threat thereof, while government uses force exclusively. As Harry Browne used to say in describing a government law: If there’s no gun backing it up, then it’s only a suggestion.

True, there are other entities that use force (e.g. criminals), but government is defined as that entity that is considered to be using legal force. Some, like Murray Rothbard, would ignore this distinction referring to a government as a (large) criminal gang. Others, like Harry Browne would say one is different from the other only by its prominent display of flags in front of its buildings.

I often ask people for a one-word definition of government, and I rarely get back the word force (or a synonym). This is the reason I think this article is important. Phrases like “market forces” and “cutthroat competition” mistakenly mix force with activities of the free market. The negative connotation of the word commodify (to use) seems to imply that that which is used has no say in the matter. His point is that this is not the way the free market works, but rather how the “not” free market (i.e. government) works. And that is a relationship worth understanding.

David C September 18, 2006 at 11:52 pm

In all fairness, the industrial revolution forced the commoditisation of the labor market and predestined the death of slavery. Those plantation masters who thought that the meaning and purpose of the industrial revolution was to leverage inventions like the cottongin to expand their plantations for unlimited growth and profit turned out to be idiots – and so are the people who believe that commoditisation of markets dehumanizes people. By definition, commoditisation makes the service value more important than the commodity value. That makes people more important, not less important.

Paul Marks September 19, 2006 at 1:00 pm

Someone who chooses to spend their life looking after the poor (whether funded by inherited wealth, of by voluntary donations) is just as much part of civil society as a farmer or a money lender.

The distinction between civil society and state is not “for profit” (or “materialist”) and “non profit” – it is between voluntary and involuntary.

Just as the conflict is not between “competition” and “cooperation” – it is between cooperation (whether “for profit” or not) and coercion.

Statism is nothing to do with “cooperation” or “public service” – it is about taking other people’s money (by the threat of violence – extortion) and ordering people about (again with the threat of violence) via the endless web of regulations.

The statists (via their control of most of the “education system” and the media) have been able to spread the idea that statism is noble whereas civil society (which they call “capitalism” or whatever) is about seeking after money profit. Whilst there is nothing wrong with seeking after money profit by honouable means, civil society contains non money profit activity (such as having children and raising them), and there is nothing noble about statism.

Paul Marks September 19, 2006 at 1:39 pm

The matter of slavery has been mentioned. The “slave’s lawyer” Salmon P. Chase (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) exmplained repeatedly that “slavery” is a series of common law crimes – abduction (in the case of people sold into slavery), false imprisonment, assault (or forcing people to do things by the threat of violence) and so on.

Clearly slavery violates the nonaggression principle and as such can not be past of a market order based upon this principle – only statute law (from the state) can “legalize” slavery.

Of course there were many writers before Chase who pointed this out (even the Romans accepted that whilst slavery was legal by “the law of all nations” it was still against the “natural law”, they just held that state law trumps natural law – a position that doomed Classical civilization), but the first writer to point out the wrongness of slavery in what, much later, became the United States was Judge Sewall (he of the Salem witch trials and subsequent apology) in his “Selling Joseph” (1700).

On the point of the seeking of money profit leading to the general good (as long as this money profit is sought by honouable means), no doubt the late Murry Rothbard could have mentioned many School Men from the middle ages who pointed this out.

However, the first clear statement knows to me of what later became known as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is from a letter from Descartes (I know that Hayek hated Descartes – but R.D. was hardly all bad, any more than Hayek was all good) to the exiled Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia dated 6th of October 1645:

“God has so established the order of things, and has joinedmen together in so close a community, that if everyone were to relate everything to himself and had no charity for others, he would still commonly work for them as much as was in his power, provided he exercised prudence, and especially if he lived in an age in which morals were not corrupted”.

The “he” clearly indicates the money profit seeking person (not God), and “morals not being corrupted” clearly does NOT refer to the virtue of charity (for Descartes is talking of people who show no charity), but means the virtue of justice – the nonaggression principle of not violating the bodies or goods of other people.

In short a man who never never did a kind deed in his life and sought as much money as he could, would PROVIDED HE WAS HONOURABLE (i.e. did not use force or fraud) still benefit humanity as well as himself.

Neither Descartes nor the School Men before him nor Adam Smith and others after him, ever suggested that he WANTED people to be like this (far from it – they all wanted people to do kind things for other people), they were simply pointing out a fact of the universe.

And for people who reject the existance of God, the opinion of the 16th-17th century theologian Francisco Suarez (echoing the words of other School Men) is worth keeping in mind – “natural law is God’s law, but if God did not exist natural law would be exactly the same”.

I may not know the works of men like Francisco de Vitoria as the late Murry Rothbard knew them – but at least I know that there is no conflict between the will of God and natural reason (so any command, supposedly from God, that contradicts basic morality can not be from God), and the nonexistance of God would not change the moral law. One does not refrain from robbery, rape and murder out of hope of reward after death, and the violation of other people’s bodies or goods remains wrong whether God exists or not.

tz September 20, 2006 at 6:34 am

But you avoid the interesting questions (those I usually ask the anarchocapitalists here).

Should things like life, justice, honor (enforcing contracts) be something done by the market or are they above and fundamental to the market.

The market does commodify everything. That is its nature and purpose. It is to allow the free exchange of things of SUBJECTIVE value.

Even property itself – I’ve asked if things like thieves’ or assassins’ guilds would or would not be proper in a place without a state (and considering some of the practices in China, WalMart may have a stolen-merchandise subsidy). Should we dispense with courts seeking truth, but keep the gavel and retrain judges as auctioneers dispensing verdicts to the highest bidder? This is the market without a foundation of objective values. One without transcendent protection for life or property. You can only own what you can prevent from being stolen.

The nation-state is in its death throes so the question is neither academic nor unimportant – when there is no government in the form we have it now, will it be like Afghanistan or Somalia under war-lords – and I didn’t see a mass migration of libertarians here to those places. Or will it be like the feudal system? Or like the swiss cantons? Or even like the 17th century examples Rothbard gives in pre-revolution America.

You have also written for “the latin mass” magazine. Should we judge the positions in the catechism by how much is spent on contraceptives v.s. NFP courses? Should we pay priests and religious rates until we attract enough just like any other labor market? If you say no, then you are by definition saying some things aren’t (or ought not be) subject to the market.

It is easier to break things than to build things, and if it is a market contest, those who would destroy or steal property have a great advantage over those who would simply like to be let alone.

Miguel Melara September 21, 2006 at 11:43 am

Real case,
Lets act…
The people from our country, Central America ,El Salvador, are very easy to accept ¨state ¨ ideas about ¨Terrible Jungle Law¨ . They (state)are very good driven peoples mind.
What can we do, so people decide to ear and open their eyes, to the rigth ideas of Liberalism.
At this moment people are on the way to accept those wrong ideas : like the easy and good option to take……………
We need to spred (as good as they does, and more)the rigth Philosophy of freedom.

TokyoTom September 22, 2006 at 7:51 am

Dr. Woods, I am disappointed, as your essay fails to deliver on its promised discussion of whether a market economy ultimately leads to the commoditization of everything, including the perspective that the whole of social life is a market – instead we are treated to the site of your “frolic and detour” into the evlis of the state.

We are quite sympathetic to what you do try to demonstrate, but it is simply beside the point with respect to what you have undertaken.

If I may offer a further comment, your statement that “[m]arket prices … make social cooperation, properly understood, possible in the first place” is an unnecessary overstatement and is missing the presumed context of a modern economy. Man is by nature cooperative (just as are our other primate cousins), and it is that inherent cooperative nature, manifested throughout the ages in sophisticated societies that did not have market pricing, that made possible the materialistic, market-orient world of today.

Whether we in gaining markets we have lost something valuable along the way is another matter, one that I feel is in part answered by the question itself, and motivates the emotional return to funadamentalism that we see so clearly manifested in the world today.

Respectfully,

TT

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