Debra Satz's new book focuses on the limits of the market from two perspectives that could be broken up in contemporary philosophical parlance as ideal and non-ideal. The first half of the book outlines the ideal conditions for a market: what a market is, how the concept of a market has been redefined over 300+ years of economic thought, how philosophers have attempted to constrain markets, and how markets fail. The second half focuses on how, in light of Satz's ideal theory, the market should be restricted when faced with specific nonideal cases: women's reproductive and sexual labor, child labor, voluntary slavery, and the sale of human organs. I should state that, while I have one quibble with the ideal theory presented, I find much to agree with and the analysis Satz provides throughout the book is very compelling.
Each half of the book is strong on its own. The second chapter on the development of the concept of the market as a heterogeneous collection of institutions based on varying needs, rather than a uniform homogenous set of integrated markets, makes clear the value in viewing some markets as substantively different than others. Satz argues that key insights were lost when economists from the 19th century onward replaced the notion of markets as a system of relationships between classes, to be used for the end of producing a good society. Markets are linchpins to improving the lot of citizens via a change in social arrangements, rather than by simply maximizing consumer preferences. In addition, Satz establishes a framework to determine whether a market fails to preserve social equality in Chapter 4, as demonstrated by one of four conditions: weak agency, vulnerability, and extreme harms to an individual or society.
Satz spends the second half of the book on specific markets (reproductive and sexual labor, human organs, child labor, slavery) and their regulation. She uses the framework for noxious markets to show that a range of markets can be regulated differently, depending on their contribution to social inequalities. She does not hold that any of these specific markets inherently contribute to some citizens' inability to participate as equals, but does claim that they all perpetuate social injustices which must be remedied in some way. Whether a market should be regulated or abolished depends on the nature of the condition the noxious market imposes on a society's citizens.
Ultimately though, I found myself hoping there would be a little bit more to Satz's ideal theory, which would clarify what the conditions for a society of equals are, and which institutions are necessary for Satz's brand of democratic equality. The brief sketch she provides lists some non-economic features of society that are required for citizens to function as equals: that citizens have adequate capabilities, have the ability to have self-respect, that pervasive social inequalities be resolved, all citizens have equal standing amongst each other. It is clear that these features undergird her restrictions on markets, and in the conclusion she states that "some goods need to be provided outside the market if citizens are to be treated as equals." And the book's subject is markets, not institutions in general. But given that interactions between market and non-market institutions are often where conflicting values are at stake, I hoped to learn a little more about how these institutions could co-exist to support a society of equals.