Imagining Marketopia

Imagining Marketopia

What is the proper place for the market? In the history of social and political thought, this seemingly simple question has elicited many different answers. That the answers vary so widely suggests that the question is not as simple as it seems. Aristotle, and later the Church Fathers, held that the market has a greatly restricted but legitimate place in social life. Bernard de Mandeville and Adam Smith were prepared to give markets a much less restricted role. Karl Marx wanted to abolish the market altogether. Today, however, a school of writers and publicists has emerged that holds that most, if not all, politically imposed limitations on markets are both inefficient and unjust. Liberate the market, they say, and let it work its magic in all spheres of life—education, energy, the environment, health care, crime and punishment, fire and police protection, transportation, and other areas as well.

This libertarian turn is a genuinely new wrinkle in intellectual history, and is hardly confined to the academy. Since the “revolutions” of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, this way of thinking has been put into (admittedly selective) practice. “Privatization” and “deregulation” became official watchwords and defining features of public policy. To the question, What is the market’s place? the answer is: (almost) anywhere and everywhere.

My purpose here is not to ask how well these policies have worked in practice, but to try instead to expose some of the questionable features of market thinking, especially when applied to spheres of social life, traditionally regarded as off limits. I’ll do this by means of a thought experiment: the construction of an imaginary society in which the market has invaded and occupied every sphere.

IMAGINE A not-so-distant future society called Marketopia. In the middle of its capital city of Nozickia lies Becker Square, which can be reached via the city’s main thoroughfare, a toll road named Liberty Lane. For a modest admission fee, one can enter the square and, for a further fee, gain entry to the mausoleum containing the embalmed body of Gary Becker, national hero and saint. “What Price Immortality?” asks the sign over the glass coffin. And it immediately answers: 43,287 Rothbards (the national currency, named for the sainted Murray), the amount raised so far by the sale of relics—items belonging to or once touched by the late economist and demigod.

In Marketopia, everything is for sale. Drugs and sexual services are reasonably priced, of course, but then so are most things, because there is a market in every conceivable good and service. There is, for example, a vigorous market in human organs. Organ brokers walk the halls of the private hospitals, keeping close watch on the dying and making deals with family members whose grief is greatly offset by the prospect of profiting from the death of their loved one. Those awaiting organ transplants are pr...