NPR’s Morning Edition ran a story a few weeks ago about the differing costs of adopting babies of different ethnic backgrounds, bluntly entitled “Black Babies Cost More to Adopt,” and Stacia Brown in The Atlantic wrote a long response/rebuttal that’s a slightly haphazard blend of factual rebuttal and conceptual rebuttal, best summarized by the final paragraph:

Regardless of who chooses to adopting them, black children don’t “cost less.” They shouldn’t be discussed as “priced” commodities. Austin believes that the emphasis on race in adoption cost is misguided. “Does it cost to adopt? Yes. But the costs are not dictated by race, rather the type of adoption. The statement [‘Black babies cost less to adopt’] is offensive, untrue, undermines the seriousness of raising a child, and continues the business of de-valuing Black children.”

So there’s some contestation of the empirical basis for the statement “Black babies cost less to adopt,” but there’s also a lot of objecting to the notion of discussing the costs of adoption in a certain manner or putting forward certain kinds of claims.

Without even broaching the factual issues here, since they’re both irrelevant to my point and highly incendiary, I’m going to say that this is the kind of issue that should give a lot of free-marketeers a hefty swig of pause. Certainly you could make quite a few good arguments for the benefits of price signals in adoption markets, allowing prices to reflect supply and demand, and why there might be perfectly benign reasons for systematic differences in those prices between white and black babies that are not-at-all rooted in racism or economic class.

The problem is that many, if not most, people have trouble disentangling “price” from “value.” It is worth noting that these are vastly different concepts. Air is valuable and free; this hilarious brain-devouring piece of useless schlock costs 6% of median global income. Yet when the subject turns to markets implicating deeply-held cultural values, detaching the price of something from some sort of implicit referendum on its value becomes very difficult. This is similar to the work in “repulsive markets” that won Al Roth a Nobel(ish) Prize, but it’s not so much about whether there ought to be any kind of monetary market in something but whether prices are in some sense “fair.” Certainly we can all agree that all babies are equally precious and beautiful and that all babies up for adoption equally need a home, but price disparities correlating with race seem to imply to many people that black babies are somehow “worth” less as opposed to merely “cost” less. It’s the same mentality that discourages people from bragging about paying less for education or health care the same way you would about a garment or a gizmo – in these cases paying less is not a signal of savvy or frugality but instead miserliness in the face of important life decisions. Nobody would adopt a black child then brag to their friends about how they got a baby that was just as good for half the price!

The implications of this are not insubstantial. It explains why Americans are hesitant to disclose their income to peers and coworkers. It explains why price discrimination is so unpopular. It explains why people cheer when post-disaster price gougers are punished even as they were about to submit to gouging themselves. And it explains why people would be so upset at merely the suggestion that “Black babies cost less to adopt.” And it’s a real problem for those inclined to subject more and more of our lives to market forces.

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