I have a brilliant idea. If markets truly are the most efficient means to getting goods to those who value them most, and markets don’t affect the goods being exchanged, then we should sell votes. Considering that many people in all democracies don’t vote surely a market in votes would maximize social utility in a way our current systems simply fail to do. Better yet why not just directly sell elected office to the highest bidders? Before I can even lay out these scenarios I suspect that there are many who find such ideas even more appalling than the existence of educational rap music.
Some may protest that those who simply bought office could alter the constitution to allow discrimination but that same concern could legitimately be raised in our current system. I think the relevant objections are such a system would be grossly unequal (as opposed to beautifully unequal) and would corrupt elected office. The first objection could in theory be raised against any market as wealthy people can, and usually do, have more of valued goods than those less well off financially. However one thing which is different about voting from private jets is the ability to vote is an essential part of being an equal in a society. One person having more yachts than another isn’t the same as one person having more votes than another. Moreover in a society where votes are up for sale elected office becomes a commodity of personal use as opposed to an institution of representative government. This latter objection is the problem of corruption. Some goods once available for sale seem to be altered not just in practice but in perception.
This intersection of economics and ethics is very real and often very much ignored. Even setting aside markets which have a direct impact on democracy it’s often argued that any transactions freely entered into, meaning no direct coercion like a gun to the head, should be upheld. Under the purest forms of this reasoning people should be free to choose whether or not they want to sell a kidney or sell themselves into slavery. The question is if freedom is purely this freedom to choose actions upon any background conditions or are there minimums of background conditions of bargaining power and economic standing which must be met for a decision to be considered free? Even if these background conditions are met do we want to really buy and sell everything or are there some areas we don’t want to treat as commodities because they are altered or degraded by selling them? Also when the availability of individual agency in totality actually limits the welfare and agency of all the members of society where should we draw the line between personal and collective freedom? Moreover how, if at all, should the fact we know humans aren’t completely rational and systemically make certain mistakes alter our answers?
The answers to these questions are heavily contested and value-laden. Still ethics and economics, which could be said to be the entirety of politics, are areas which I think many who consider themselves critical thinkers, no matter their political allegiance, have muddled views the equivalents of which would be heavily criticized in skeptical and rationalist arenas. Failing to account for the recent discoveries in behavioral economics perhaps has the obvious impact but I think the bigger issue is the way we frame the debate. We often fail to ask the right questions or at least don’t ask all the relevant questions.
What I’m saying is, I see most skeptics timid discussions of noncontroversial subjects like gods, souls and conspiracies and I raise them all the more difficult and inflammatory topics of ethics, economics and politics.