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Transformable Goods and the Limits of What Money Can Buy

  • David G. Dick EMAIL logo


There are some things money literally cannot buy. Invariably transformable goods are such things because when they are exchanged for money, they become something else. These goods are destroyed rather than transferred in monetary exchanges. They mark out an impassable limit beyond which money and the market cannot reach. They cannot be for sale, in the strongest and most literal sense. Variably transformable goods are similar. They can be destroyed when offered or exchanged for money, but they differ in their ability to sometimes emerge from financial transactions intact. Analyzing transformable goods reveals informative and surprising results. Like other goods and commodities, they are agent relative, defined by the way particular agents value them. Inside the same transaction, a good could be transformable for one agent and not another, depending on how and what these agents value in the transaction. Applying this conceptual framework can reveal otherwise obscure facets of existing and future debates about the ethics and limits of markets. To demonstrate this, the framework is here applied to Richard Titmuss’s arguments about markets in blood, clarifying and illuminating some of his most confusing claims. Applying this framework to other debates may reveal even more striking results.


For their help in preparing this paper, I am grateful to Carly Drake, Noa Latham, David Liebesman, Katie McShane, Margaret Jane Radin, and Justin Weinhardt. I am especially grateful for the extraordinary care and attention paid to this paper by two anonymous reviewers, Adrian Currie, and C. Kenneth Waters. I thank Mark Lee for his research assistance provided through a PURE award. My work on this paper was supported by a Research and Scholarship Leave from the University of Calgary.


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Published Online: 2016-04-22
Published in Print: 2017-06-27

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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