Re-Imagining Marketopia: A Reply to Terence Ball

A decade ago Terence Ball wrote a critique of some Frankenstein-like creature meant to represent free market ideology. He robbed the graves of men and women as diverse as Murray Rothbard, Margaret Thatcher, Robert Nozick and Ayn Rand to put it together and came up with something that no libertarian would endorse, I suspect, but which nevertheless is recognizable as libertarian(ish). It may not be the same species, but it is in the same genus. Or at least the same family.

He imagined a country called Marketopia and described how life would be there, with the purpose of showing us that while markets are good for some things, there are areas where they are inappropriate. As he wrote, “why do some (or perhaps all) Marketopian practices make many – perhaps most – of us uneasy or queasy, or worse?” The great problem with his essay is that he never demonstrates to the reader’s satisfaction that he understands what his own argument is. He claims to be interested in three questions: Why do people get queasy at the practices of Marketopia, what distortions of the language would Marketopia produce and are we already headed towards Marketopia.

About the second question I care nothing at all, and about the third… well, watching a statist fretting over how close we are to a Free Market is a bit like listening to a neocon quaking that Iran presents a military threat to the United States. It would be less embarrassing to watch a grown man sleep with a night light to protect him from the Bogey Man in his closet. The first question bears some scrutiny, however, but I wish I could do it knowing what exactly Dr. Ball had in mind.

Is this Marketopia supposed to be what would always happen if libertarianism ever won the day, or is he just demonstrating how market activity is inappropriate for some relationships? If the latter is his point, I would say he came up with a handful of examples where I agree with him, but what does he propose to do about it? If the former, it should be pointed out that many of these activities are legal now but do not occur.

In Marketopia we get all manner of behavior that does not occur here, or is outlawed. This behavior we are meant to find distasteful fits into three broad categories. The first are those activities which are illegal now, but would not be in a libertarian society.

Organ brokers walk the halls of the private hospitals, keeping close watch on the dying and making deals with the family members whose grief is greatly offset by the prospect of profiting from the death of their loved one. Those awaiting organ transplants are prepared to pay the going price for a heart, lung, kidney, or other vital organs. Typically, competing organ brokers play one patient off against the other, thereby raising the price and ensuring that the organ goes to the highest bidder. Most Marketopians opt for a designation on their drivers’ license, saying that in event of their death their organs should be sold to the highest bidder.

I fail to see what should make someone queasy about a market for organs to save lives. It is not the act of giving up an organ, because I have never heard an objection over that. It must be the fact that the organ is being sold, and yet no one objects to farmers selling food to save those of us who need to eat to remain alive. I truly do not understand it, and not understanding it, I stand little chance of curing the nausea. Therefore I shall limit myself to one question: assuming that those retching at the thought of organ sales can at least agree that a market for organs would create more supply of those organs, which makes them queasier, someone selling their organs, or someone dying because they couldn’t buy one?

While the good reader is busy deciding which scenario induces a greater quantity of vomit, I ask that he take some note of the way the cited paragraph was crafted. Notice the family members nearly forgetting to mourn because of the money they shall get from selling their loved one’s cadaver, or the organ brokers walking the halls, seeking out death. See how unsavory is the practice of pitting desperate and dying patients in a bidding war for organs that could save their lives. One is tempted to suspect that Dr. Ball is simply being unfair, painting as hideous a picture as he can in service of his thesis, rather than trying to be honest.

Why exactly does he conclude that the organ industry would operate in this manner? Has he ever heard of insurance? Why does he assume that dying patients must outbid other dying patients for survival? Why would the organs not have already been purchased each month when they pay for health insurance? And why would organ brokers stalk the hallways looking for organs? Did the dying patient not already sell the rights to them in event of his death years ago (incidentally, people stalking the hallways looking for healthy organs from dead individuals is what happens now. I know this because my wife works in a MICU. People intrude on the grief of families right now in search of organs – I don’t blame them; they are trying to save lives after all – and they are often told no.)?

Blackmail… is regarded as a free-market transaction in which one person pays another for the service of remaining silent.

Entirely unobjectionable, at least from a legal perspective. If I am allowed to reveal your secret, why should you not be allowed to offer me money to drink a nice tall glass of shut-the-fuck-up? Dr. Ball never objects to non-disclosure agreements; why should he care if this sort of consent is purchased? This is similar to the organ case in that all similar activities are legal; it is money that gets people riled up. But who honestly is going to be uneasy about someone having a method of preserving his secrets? Certainly not the man whose secrets would have otherwise been revealed, and certainly not the man who agrees to be silent and finds himself richer. Is there anyone else in this transaction whose opinion matters?

The sale of cocaine, heroin, hashish, and other drugs is viewed in a similar light [to blackmail].

This is not the time to make a five thousand word argument against the drug war. I shall simply appeal to decency: in exchange for drug users not using violence against him, can the good reader find it in his heart not to use violence against them? Understand that this precludes the possibility of imprisonment, because how but by violence or a threat of violence can you get them into prison?

The next category of activities is composed of those things which are hypothetically possible in a free world, and often legal right now in this one, but it strains credulity to imagine anything turning out this way.

For instance, Dr. Ball claims that all roads are toll roads in Marketopia. Let us forget for a moment that private companies operate toll roads right now – roads which never have traffic jams – and ask a few questions to determine how exactly Marketopia came to be dominated by toll roads only. Do developers not make community roads for the neighborhoods they build? Is it actually more profitable to make neighborhood streets toll streets rather than open them for all residents and guests and maintain them through the monthly, quarterly, semiannual or annual homeowners’ association fee? Have no businesses built roads to attract customers to their stores (as happened frequently in colonial America)? Have car companies not paved a few highways to make their product more valuable (as Ford Motor Company offered to do but was rejected)? That last question brings up an interesting point: why should the good reader be taxed to pay for something to make Ford’s products more valuable?

[F]ire and police protection is provided by private companies for a fee, and according to how much protection, delivered how fast, the consumer desires or can afford. If you can’t afford, or choose to forgo, fire protection, one or more fire companies will, in the event of a fire at your house, appear with hoses, hooks, and ladders—and the fire captain will engage you in fast-paced negotiations about how much you think his company’s sevices are now worth. These negotiated post-fire fees (as they are called) tend to be very high, often running into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of Rothbards.

We may dispense with the nonsense about anyone being unable to afford fire protection. If you can afford the house, you can afford $75 a year for fire protection (assuming private companies don’t find a way to provide it for less). This is assuming, of course, that fire protection is not offered by the homeowners’ association as an incentive for buyers (as lawn-mowing and pools are often provided now, and as anything that is demanded could be in a free society). And for those houses out in the country, to them I say “PAY YOUR $75 FIRE PROTECTION FEE OR DON’T WHINE!”

Nevertheless, there are some who may refuse the fee (we cannot seriously claim that they could forget, because the profit-seeking companies would surely set it up to be deducted each month from their bank account or billed to their credit card) and they may have to negotiate at the last minute. Economic theory tells us that there is a maximum price the buyer will pay, and a minimum price the seller will accept. If the post-fire fees are so high, wouldn’t other fire protection companies show up to bid the price down? How could a soaring high price like that not attract competition? There is, after all, no regulatory agency keeping them away.

Dr. Ball makes a similar case about private policing, but I think I can skip it and refer the good reader to the fire protection example.

Marketopians love to be entertained and amused. Most television stations do not broadcast depressing programs; there isn’t much of a market. This means that reports about floods, famines, airplane crashes, and Middle Eastern politics are not featured on the most widely watched news programs.

Right. Those sensational sort of stories don’t attract many viewers.

One of Marketopia’s more thriving enterprises is Rent-a-Friend. For ten Rothbards an hour one can rent an “acquaintance,” for twenty-five a “friend,” for fifty a “good friend,” and for one-hundred a “best friend.” For those who prefer non-human companionship, Rent-a-Pet (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rent-a-Friend) provides dogs, cats, goldfish, gerbils, pot-bellied pigs, and many other animals for periods ranging from one day to the lifetime of the animal… [F]rom Sycophants Inc. you can rent a flatterer to follow you around and praise you…From Losers [Ltd.] you can rent a partner… Loser’s slogan is “You win, we lose—guaranteed.”

Is there some government law preventing these things now? I note a distinct lack of such services despite the freedom to offer them. And if someone needs companionship so badly they are willing to pay for it… what type of violence does Terence propose in order to maintain them in solitude? Again, it would be easier to talk about this if I knew whether he was saying that paying someone to lose to you at tennis is merely distasteful, or an inevitability of a libertarian society.

The marriage contract stipulates what assets each partner will bring to the marriage, which assets they are (or are not) willing to share, how frequently they will engage in sex (and what fee or exchange is involved), how many children they will have (and what the wife will charge the husband for the inconvenience of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth), and so on and on.

Much of this can happen now in what is called a prenuptial agreement. Every contract has terms and marriage is a contract. Why should anyone but the two betrothed have the power to determine the terms of a particular marriage contract? If they want things like the frequency of sex spelled out, that is their business, but we must note, as we have so often, that if people aren’t doing it now, Dr. Ball has the burden of demonstrating why that would be different in Marketopia.

Some especially wealthy men “upgrade” by exchanging older wives for newer and younger models; wealthy women do the same.

It is very important, of course, to prevent people from leaving a relationship they don’t want to be in. Our government, God bless it, has done a good job of preventing rich men from divorcing and marrying younger.

[A] mother might ask her son to “Give Mommy a kiss.” To which the son typically replies, “What’s it worth to you?” The mother will then say something like, “Two Rothbards.” “Four,” he says flatly and firmly. She nods, and as he pecks her cheek, she opens her purse and says proudly with a warm maternal smile, “That’s my boy. The best bargainer a mother ever had.”

The reply to this has already been used for certain examples above. I don’t feel like reproducing it and anyway, I’m so embarrassed for Terence Ball that I prefer to hurry on past this nincompoopery. I’ll linger but a moment to express my own distaste for that sort of thing, but reaffirm my commitment to leaving people alone if that is how they wish to live their lives.

William Graham Sumner University—a private institution, as are all institutions in Marketopia—is not only “run like a business,” it is a business, and a very profitable one at that. A grade of “A” can be purchased for the relatively modest sum of five hundred Rothbards, a “B” for four hundred, a “C” for three hundred.

And why purchase them, since no business is going to hire someone with a diploma from WGSU? Which leads me to ask, how exactly is WGSU a “very profitable” business?

All research at Sumner and other centers of higher learning is financed by large corporations. The tobacco industry supports research on smoking and health… Pioneering research… has shown that—contrary to a once-popular but now discredited belief—there is no link between smoking and cancers of the lung, throat, and other organs.

However, most of the populace ignores that research and instead focuses on the research done by medical insurance and other like industries, recognizing that they have more trustworthy incentives. Kind of like how I get my oil changed every five thousand miles, like Toyota says I should, rather than the every three thousand miles Jiffy Lube insists on.

Finally, we come to the third category, those fictitious practices which are not libertarian or Free Market in the slightest, starting with the Marketopian dictionary.

The language spoken in Marketopia bears a close resemblance to English, at least in vocabulary and spelling, though not in the meaning of many words. Marketopian dictionaries are helpful here. Under “society,” for example, the entry reads: “Fictitious entity believed by collectivists to be real. See also Public.” Under “justice” the entry reads: “Noninterference in market transactions; actions, arrangements and/or decisions conducive to the functioning of free markets.” And under “injustice” the obverse: “Interference with and/or regulation of market transactions.”

Libertarians are perfectly aware that society exists; what we argue is that there is nothing to society that is not a part of individuals and their interactions (unlike the mind, which is not to be found in any constituent of the brain, but only when all those constituents are together). As for “justice” and “injustice”, I can only suggest some reading material for Terence.

After being tried in private court before a judge—juries being slow and inefficient (and unfair to would-be jurors, who are in any event too busy with their own affairs to serve), are never used in Marketopia, even in capital cases—the wrongdoer will be incarcerated in one of the private prisons run by Burglar Kin, McPrison, and other franchises.

It is difficult to know how exactly a courtroom would turn out in a free society, but it is interesting to note that Dr. Ball, who goes so far as to suggest that little boys will charge their mothers for kisses, has failed to imagine that there might be professional jurors. At any rate, people in a free society would be at liberty to choose the legal protection from the company that best suited them and had the most attractive agreements with the other companies.

As for prisons, I don’t see that they would be used very often. Dr. Ball has already conceded that drugs would be legal, so there goes half the prison population. Cut it back some more for the decrease in crime once the black market was gone, and cut it back even more for all the true crimes which would nevertheless be handled by compensation for the victim, and perhaps by violence in kind. Again, I refer him to that reading material linked to above. Prisons would be used for those who have not been executed but simply cannot play well with their fellows.

The private prisons of Marketopia have proven to be both profitable and popular. Prisons serve not only to punish criminals but to entertain a vast television audience. One program, called “Con Cam,” broadcasts videos of prisoners as they go about their daily business—making homemade knives in the prison workshop, extorting money from weaker prisoners, and buying drugs from the guards (perfectly legal of course).

Much of the inhumanity in modern prisons is due to overcrowding, a problem already solved by legalizing drugs and using proper retribution and restitution to handle crime. However, even those few who do get put in prison are still entitled to rights protection, and they may purchase these services like any citizen (of course they may labor and sell the surplus! How else would they pay for their own imprisonment?). Therefore, any extortion that takes place can be rectified. As for broadcasting their lives, that is an impermissible intrusion into their privacy unless they sign on to permit it.

It should be noted that in many instances, I speak of the proper libertarian action when in fact, even a market society might deviate from it. This seems like one likely instance. It could well be that those deemed unfit for life outside prison walls, even in Libertopia, could have their rights stripped from them, despite the efforts of family, friends and altruistic benefactors on the outside who campaign on their behalf. But this is not just a problem for Libertopia and Marketopia; any government faces this conundrum as well. That the government has not chosen to close budget gaps by selling TV rights in prisons probably has something to do with the reception it would receive by the populace at large. Is Terence Ball really going to argue that, no matter how consumerist we already are, the addition of a few more goods and services to the market would so change our character that we would then countenance this sort of thing?

Even if it did, a televised prison show is a small price to pay for freedom.

But the most widely watched televised spin-off of the private prison system is the hugely popular “Who Wants to Live?” A month before his or her execution, the condemned prisoner is introduced to the viewing audience, which then submits suggestions for the manner and method of execution—hanging, firing squad, disemboweling, drawing and quartering, and other even more ingenious means. This supplies special incentives to the prisoner and his or her allies in the anti-death penalty movement to raise money for release or at least commutation of the death penalty. The ensuing bidding war is fierce and frenetic. In most instances, the prisoners lose (unless of course they are wealthy enough to outbid their opponents). Two days before the scheduled execution a final vote is taken. The rule is, “One Rothbard, one vote.” Some viewers—especially members of the victim’s family—are prepared to pay thousands or even millions of Rothbards to ensure the grisliest of deaths for the condemned. And this in turn ensures an even larger viewing audience and therefore increased advertising revenues.

In a libertarian society, the victim determines punishment, as long as it does not surpass in scope the original crime. Only a murderer may be executed, and only if the victim left behind instructions in just such an eventuality, or if his next-of-kin or whomever he designated so decides. No one else has any business in the decisions.

Of course, Dr. Ball could then argue that the circus would revolve around the next-of-kin, and indeed it might. The prisoner might beg for his life; his family might offer money. So what?

Terence Ball’s little thought experiment suffers from all the typical hysteria statists use to greet libertarian ideas: casting them in the worst light possible; rigging the scenario to get the most idiotic worst case outcomes; failing to recognize that a certain problem is shared by all systems, not just libertarian ones; and occasionally understanding the libertarian idea but failing to see its superiority. He goes on to explain how Marketopia is inferior, and he even repeats those tired old canards about deregulation hurting power companies and the banking industry. I have seen worse characterizations of libertarianism, but this one never manages to distinguish itself from the pack of misguided critiques that statists frequently send our way.

Language may indeed change in a free world, but that is the nature of language. This is not a distortion; this is adaptability. And Dr. Ball can calm his terror: we are nowhere near the market world he envisions, nor are we heading in that direction. As for the queasiness he gets when people are allowed to live their own lives, I have a little advice: mind your own business. And if it really bothers you, look away.

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  • Here is an awesome excerpt on this topic from Mises:

    Superficial critics of the capitalistic economic system are in the habit of directing their attacks principally against money… and yet they want this exchange to be achieved without any medium, or at least without a common medium, or money. They obviously regard the use of money as harmful and hope to overcome all social evils by eliminating it…

    All the processes of our economic life appear in a monetary guise; and those who do not see beneath the surface of things are only aware of monetary phenomena and remain unconscious of deeper relationships. Money is regarded as the cause of theft and murder, of deception and betrayal. Money is blamed when the prostitute sells her body and when the bribed judge perverts the law. It is money against which the moralist declaims when he wishes to oppose excessive materialism. Significantly enough avarice is called the love of money; and all evil is attributed to it.

    The confused and vague nature of such notions as these is obvious. It is not so clear whether it is thought that a return to direct exchange by itself will be able to overcome all the disadvantages of the use of money, or whether it is thought that other reforms will be necessary as well. The world makers and world improvers responsible for these notions feel no obligation to follow up their ideas inexorably to their final consequences. They prefer to call a halt at the point where the difficulties of the problem are just beginning. And this, incidentally, accounts for the longevity of their doctrines; so long as they remain nebulous, they offer nothing for criticism to seize upon.”

    — The Theory of Money and Credit, Chapter 6

    • Two other relevant quotes:

      There is hardly an ethical problem, in fact, without its economic aspect. Our daily ethical decisions are in the main economic decisions, and nearly all our daily economic decisions have, in turn, an ethical aspect.
      — Henry Hazlitt, The Foundations of Morality (1964), p. 301.

      The market makes a perfect totalizing enemy: it is impersonal, has no particular location and legitimates itself through a myriad of democratic practices of buying and selling. … The problem is that … the market is a democratic institution aggregating the decisions of whomever participates in it. When all is said and done, complaints about the market are nothing but complaints about the people themselves.
      — Paul Piccone, “From the New Left to the New Populism,” Telos, 101 (Fall 1994), p. 202.

      • Two more pertinent comments. I’ve never heard of Piccone, but that’s a promising introduction.

    • Awesome quote, Isaac. Mises’ gaze was keen, and his writing clear, were they not?

  • Great critique, these kinds of arguments from the opponents are quite common. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Paul!

      They are all too common, indeed. We must keep squashing them as best we can.