A useful idea from economic theory is commodification, the process by which things that were previously not sold become accepted objects of economic exchange. Commodification is kind of a weird concept for contemporary Americans, since pretty much every aspect of our lives has been commodified already. Consider, though, the commodity that is clothing; for centuries, most people made their own, until rising incomes and better manufacturing in the early 19th century made it easier to buy them from somebody else. Degree of commodification is a good measure of the development of an economy. During the middle ages, for example, Europeans did not buy or sell land—one reason their economy stagnated for a millenium. Compared to those assholes, our economy is fantastic. Just last month, for example, a Florida legislator submitted a law drafted by corporate lobbying group the American Legislative Exchange Council, word for word, without remembering to delete ALEC’s mission statement from the top.
That’s like beginning your Expository Writing paper with “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” I would like to apologize for the dearth of professionally objective news stories about this event, which the progressive press has seized on to the complete non-reaction of anybody else. Well, almost anybody. ALEC is something of a bogeyman to the left, for good reason. The organization claims that a third of the country’s state legislators are members, and that those members introduce over a thousand ALEC-written bills each year. To say that ALEC writes them is no exaggeration; the group produces sheaves of model legislation that it sends to lawmakers, many of whom submit it unchanged to their respective houses.
They usually remember to delete the mission statement, though. Burgin withdrew the original version of her bill 24 hours after she submitted it, then submitted it again with the ALEC paragraph removed. It’s a telling response, given that what ALEC does is not illegal. Anyone can suggest legislation to lawmakers in whatever form they like. In the case of ALEC, “anyone” is a consortium of very large corporations—Verizon, ExxonMobil, Bank of America—and public-minded billionaires like the Koch brothers.
Not surprisingly, what ALEC wants the Florida legislature to do is lower corporate taxes. In the past, they’ve drafted legislation challenging the Affordable Care Act and limitations on greenhouse gasses. These bills are generally introduced at the state level and demand things from the federal government, so no one of them is particularly important. As an interstate phenomenon, though—the ALEC greenhouse bill was introduced in 22 legislatures and the Affordable Care Act bill in 44—they amount to a significant force.
They also constitute an interesting instance of commodification. I reiterate: what ALEC does is not illegal. Most people would probably think that it is reprehensible for individual legislators to submit ALEC bills, however, as Burgin’s hasty retraction makes clear. That’s because the commodification of our legislative system is not something we are ready to accept.
We do not want our lawmakers’ opinions to be the objects of economic exchange. As with love—as seen in the many laws prohibiting the commodification of sexual affection via prostitution—we believe there is something wrong with making governance a matter of anything but individual conscience. Exactly what is wrong about it is difficult to articulate. It’s just gross, like telling the Algonquins you own the island of Manhattan or paying fifty dollars for a handjob.
Gross or not, though, commodification of American law is happening. In 2012, elected offices are objects of economic exchange the way fish are the objects of ocean currents. Supreme Court approval of super PACs means that an essentially unlimited total quantity of money can flow into any given election. The existence of coordinated multi-state lobbying groups and the enormous resources of the corporations they represent mean that the system of exchange is in place even when there isn’t an election coming up. Like every other aspect of the American economy, the market for state laws is extremely developed. Commodification is the inevitable result, for the same reason that when you move the hands of a clock the gears turn inside.
Unless, of course, we make some laws about it. It is possible that we need to do with the commodification of law what we did with the commodification of sex. Laws against prostitution exist not because women want so desperately to be prostitutes, but because the enormous amount of money available to buy sex means some people will inevitably sell it. Commodification makes things available for money, but money also makes things available for commodification. It may not be so evenly distributed, but there is an enormous amount of money in America right now. We should be careful about what people spend it on, lest we find ourselves an enormous number of whores.