In August 2012 five people went on trial in China for facilitating illegal organ trading after a student was found to have sold his kidney in order to buy an iPad. In the subsequent reporting of the incident, the case was held up as an example of the foibles of a world obsessed with consumption; a world in which everything has a price. Even though I agree that such transactions should be prohibited, the focus on whether or not people are materialistic somewhat misses the point. The salient question is not to do with the morality or immorality of consumerism, but rather a question about the boundaries of legitimate state intervention in the affairs of private individuals.
I’m going to outline a couple of reasons there may be for wanting the state to stop these sorts of transactions. One reason is that if a market in a particular good or service corrupts the social meaning of a good, then it is legitimate to restrict the sale of that good. The main problem with this argument is that it is quite illiberal. It can permit the restriction of the rights of citizens on the basis of reasons with which they may radically disagree, even if those rights have no harmful implications for anyone else. So, for example, the argument could be deployed in a country where a majority of Christian citizens object to the sale of kidneys on religious grounds. The Christian citizens may attempt to restrict the commodification of kidneys because they believe that human organs are a sacred gift from God which should not be ‘corrupted’ by monetary valuation. Now consider if there was a minority of atheists in this country. The atheist minority can reasonably disagree with the religious justification for the laws restricting their choice to sell their kidney. The atheist minority could protest that they are not being treated as equals; a comprehensive doctrine that they do not accept is being used to restrict their liberty. They are not being permitted to act as they choose, despite these actions having no harmful implications for any other members of society.
A second (and better) reason for restricting markets is that people may only sell particular types of goods or services when they were in situations of such dire economic necessity that it constitutes a kind of coercion. Michael Sandel sums up this position well, he writes ‘a peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea in order to feed his starving family, but his agreement is not truly voluntary. He is coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.’ I suspect this is why most people, me included, may want the state to step and stop these kinds of transactions. But people who are sympathetic to this view might want to consider a couple of problems with the argument. The first thing to note about this argument is that it is not an objection to markets per se, rather it is an objection to markets which operate under highly asymmetrical background conditions. Therefore, it could not provide a reason to prevent a wealthy person selling their kidney. Another potential problem is that the transaction is paternalistic – it says that people who are in poverty are incapable of making a choice which they perceive as increasing their well-being simply because they have few resources.