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January 17, 2011

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Thanks, Jonathan - I've been thinking about this too, based on this Wall Street Journal article from last month:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703471904576002913040745224.html?mod=WSJ_newsreel_ahed

The surrogacy question is a great one to ask. As you may guess, I would come down more on the market side, since it preserves the maximal choice for all involved--and I would expect (hope?) the safety concerns, and the concerns about the true voluntariness of the choices themselves, to be ameliorated somewhat by increased openness about the procedure (as in popular arguments for legalizing prostitution).

Thanks for the link, Mark, and for the comment.

The basic worldview that most American economists bring to the thought process is a) that generally there are assumed to be evenly enforced laws and basic human rights are protected; and b) that gross violations of human rights will be reported in the media and corrected. Enlightened self-interest works to curb the bulk of abuses in such societies, and choice is freely made.

My experience living in Africa and Latin America is exactly the opposite. We can assume that one-half to two-thirds of the world's people live in societies where there is no free press and basic human rights are regularly violated through killing and intimidation. Moreover, many markets are rigged to benefit elites.

It would be nice to assume these problems away... but that is not a scientific approach! Reading Adam Smith, we see that in working on actual public policies (as opposed to theory) he was acutely aware of these problems, and factored them into his judgments. The upshot is, we need to study the history and laws of a country before making judgments about the desirability of public policies toward markets there. One size does not fit all.

See Dani Rodrik, One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth (Princeton University Press, 2007).

More comments welcome! This is the big gorilla in the room. Thanks, Mark.

Excellent point about practical policymaking, Jonathan - not to mention one that you and your coauthors make very well in your Accepting the Invisible Hand chapter, discussed here:

http://www.economicsandethics.org/2010/11/blevins-ramirez-and-wight-ethics-in-the-mayan-marketplace-from-accepting-the-invisible-hand.html

And you're absolutely right - the immediate application of idealistic policy prescriptions to nonideal situations cannot work. But isn't working toward the ideal the preferable long-term goal, if not the short-term one?

You stated it perfectly!

Just remember as you apply economic theory that the lived experience for women in deeply impoverished circumstances is one in which the idea of choices and global market is something that we as people of privilege can't really and truly grasp at the deeper levels of desperation.

Exactly, Karen (and thanks for commenting). I think the point of the discussion between me and Jonathan is that extreme poverty and deprivation (among women as well as men) requires immediate, nonideal solutions (which will be unique to any culture, including gender-based culture), before the ideal (freedom, choice, etc.) can be sought.

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