Markets, Interpersonal Practices, and Signal Distortion

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* Article: Markets, Interpersonal Practices, and Signal Distortion. By Barry Maguire & Brookes Brown. Philosophers' Imprint 19 (2019)



Semiotic objections to market exchange of a good or service maintain that such exchanges signal an inappropriate attitude to the good or to associated individuals, and that this provides a weighty reason against having or participating in such markets. This style of argument has recently come under withering attack from Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski (2015a, 2015b). They point out that the significance of any market exchange is explained by a contingent semiotic norm. Given the tremendous value that could be realised by markets in, for instance, bone marrow, or kidneys, deferring to such norms across the board would have very significant opportunity costs. In the absence of any rationale for these norms, they should be ignored completely. We provide one important rationale. Unlike many semiotic objections to markets, we provide a broadly consequentialist semiotic argument. We argue that a range of behaviours play important signalling roles in interpersonal social practices; in particular, in practices involving caring, esteem, and testimony. Markets in these behaviours would distort these signals. Moreover, many of the productive advantages yielded by markets rely in turn on positive market norms that also inhibit the signalling behaviours associated with these nonmarket behaviours. We conclude that there will inevitably be trade-offs between the distributive advantages of new markets and these interpersonal social practices.”