How Academics Can Prevent Summer Snowstorms: A Review of James Stacey Taylor's Markets with Limits

September 2022

James Stacey Taylor, Markets with Limits: How the Commodification of Academia Derails Debate, London and New York: Routledge, 2022, pp. 234, ISBN-13: 978-1032171494

In this impressive book, the author grapples with two demanding questions. The first is a pressing question in modern moral philosophy: are there inherent moral limits to markets? Are there some things that are normally permissible for adults to own, use, or have but should be exempt from buying and selling in the market? Are there goods or services which should never, under any circumstances, be bought and sold? Taylor provides a helpful overview of the “markets and morality” literature, a lucid critique of some of its poorly argued claims, and a judicious appraisal of the future direction of the debate.

Additionally, as the subtitle suggests, the author addresses the failings of academic philosophy, contending that many are largely because of the incentivisation of publications. How and to what degree has commodification and the imperatives of the academy – the incentives professors need to advance in their professional life – distorted knowledge construction? He writes, “…while academics have an incentive to publish, they have little incentive to serve as peer reviewers—and even less incentive to engage in the time-consuming work of checking submitted manuscripts to ensure that they are exegetically accurate. It is thus only to be expected that exegetically inaccurate work will enter the academic literature” (p. 2).

This humdrum observation speaks to a salient truth about life in the academy and one which has serious and even calamitous consequences. For professors, the drudgery of checking references, scrutinizing the citations or statistics, or ensuring the accuracy of the work they referee pays no dividends. This quotidian work is crucial, yet the reward structures in the academy simply don’t recognize such humble tasks. Combined with the market-driven incentivisation of publications, the consequences for knowledge production in the academy can be disastrous.

The book cogently links the “markets and morality” literature to the commodification debate. The writing is lucid, the arguments clearly (and sometimes cleverly) presented, and there is a good-natured, humourous bonhomie throughout. Taylor is a congenial guide, and he seems to be saying, “We academics might sometimes get it wrong, but we are all – whatever our differences – dedicated to getting it right.” For example, when he writes critically about various theorists who have simply gotten it wrong, Taylor also makes clear to the reader that such exegetical errors are frequently the result of nothing more than responding rationally to incentives to publish a lot and to publish quickly. In this sense, such writers are merely rational academics, not bad academics. (And he takes care to note where he, too, has made similar citation errors.)

According to the author, in recent years, the debate over the moral limits of markets has become derailed and is in dire need of rescue: “Many of its participants focus on a position on the morality of commodifying certain goods and services that there is no good reason to believe that anyone holds. And they address arguments for this position that there is good reason to believe that nobody holds” (p. 1). Taylor believes that the debate over the moral limits of markets has been typified by a great deal of tilting at windmills. His ambition is to return the debate to solid ground.

As a first step toward putting the debate back on track, Taylor takes aim at Jason Brennan and Peter M. Jaworski and their influential 2016 tome, Markets Without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests. Taylor notes that the claims in this book are widely accepted in the literature on the possible ethical limits to the market. More than any other, this is the book that has set the agenda for the commodification debate in recent years. According to Taylor, Brennan and Jaworski’s approach not only fails on its own merits, but the success of their mistaken book represents a much broader and typical failure of academic discourse.

To describe the nature of this failure, the author introduces the concept of a “woozle,” a term taken from Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh is walking around a small wood in the snow, and after circling it, he sees tracks going around it. He decides to track the animal that made the tracks. After circling back to his starting point, he sees that there are now two sets of tracks! Piglet joins him, and they track the “woozles” that made the tracks. Back at their starting point, they see another animal has joined the woozles – and there are now three woozles! The story has its denouement when Christopher Robin explains to Pooh that he has just been tracking himself. (Hmmm… “just tracking himself” strikes perilously close to home.)

Academic “woozles” are like Pooh’s illusory woozles – claims that are widely accepted as a result of being widely repeated and cited but which are false. Those who repeat them didn’t bother to work their way through to the original source to verify their claim. Academe (along with popular culture) is filled with such claims. Many of these are trivial and amusing. For example, there was once a widespread belief in Brontë scholarship that Charlotte Brontë encountered a snowstorm in Yorkshire in July, with some commentators noting that England often had summer snowstorms. It didn’t. She’d encountered a thunderstorm, but an early transcriber of her letters wrote “snowstorm” by mistake. Despite the implausibility of the claim, nobody bothered with the simple task of checking the publicly available weather records.

According to Taylor, Brennan and Jaworski have introduced a few false claims that are becoming woozles of their own. For example, the claim that many critics of markets believe that some market transactions are always and essentially disrespectful (they don’t) and the claim that the men of the Merina of Madagascar pay their wives for sex as a sign of respect (they don’t, and none of the literature Brennan and Jaworski cite claim anything like this.)

Through careful exegesis – a sort of anti-woozling – the author convincingly shows that Brennan and Jaworski have misunderstood the positions of those they criticize. For example, the theorists whose views Brennan and Jaworski directly criticize have – to the person – explicitly rejected the essentialist semiotics that the authors ascribe to them. Brennan and Jaworski claim that philosophers see particular actions as having “logically essential meaning,” despite philosophers having widely rejected such semiotic essentialism. Thus, while Brennan and Jaworski often write that their conventionalist view of meaning is a radical departure from philosophical orthodoxy, the opposite is true. This view has long been entrenched as the dominant view in philosophy. In sum, Brennan and Jaworski provide a decisive refutation of a view that no one holds and then defend that position from people who don’t disagree.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Taylor looks at how the debates over the moral limits of markets have become derailed. In the second part, the author looks at how they can be put back on track and offers a clarifying taxonomy of the different debates that are concerned with the moral limits of markets. In the third section, Taylor examines the transition from market norms to academic norms and outlines how the incentives that academics face in conducting research make it likely that published research will contain serious errors that almost inevitably will be propagated by other researchers.

There is much humour in the book. Some of it is overt, but there are a lot of jokes hidden in the text (sometimes only to be discovered when you check references), as well as the Index and Bibliography. Taylor is incentivising his readers to do what academics should do: read diligently, including checking the citations.

The idea that the life of the mind can be summed up in the metrics of publications and a shallow commodification distorts academic norms. But Taylor is a charitable writer, and he is at pains to make clear that academics, like everyone, respond rationally to incentives, particularly the incentive to publish quickly. His aim is not to settle scores or engage in ad hominem attacks. It is to reform the academy by changing the internal incentives that academic institutions offer to their faculty, thereby restoring to academic debates the gravitas they deserve. In other words, “…there are certain realms of human activity in which the influence of markets should be limited. We should be a market economy. But we should not be a wholly market society.”