Choice, consent, and the legitimacy of market transactions

Economics and Philosophy 20 (1):1-18 (2004)
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According to an often repeated definition, economics is the science of individual choices and their consequences. The emphasis on choice is often used – implicitly or explicitly – to mark a contrast between markets and the state: While the price mechanism in well-functioning markets preserves freedom of choice and still efficiently coordinates individual actions, the state has to rely to some degree on coercion to coordinate individual actions. Since coercion should not be used arbitrarily, coordination by the state needs to be legitimized by the consent of its citizens. The emphasis in economic theory on freedom of choice in the market sphere suggests that legitimization in the market sphere is “automatic” and that markets can thus avoid the typical legitimization problem of the state. In this paper, I shall question the alleged dichotomy between legitimization in the market and in the state. I shall argue that it is the result of a conflation of choice and consent in economics and show how an independent concept of consent makes the need for legitimization of market transactions visible. Footnotes1 For helpful comments and suggestions I am most grateful to Marc Fleurbaey, Alain Marciano, Herlinde Pauer-Studer, Thomas Pogge, Hans Bernhard Schmid, to seminar or conference participants in Aix-Marseille, Tutzing, Paris, and Amsterdam, and to two anonymous referees.
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