Markets in Everything: Souls

In this post, the Freakonomics blogger Stephen Dubner posts an offer from Caleb B. who is looking to buy souls for $10 to $50.

Here’s his offer:

…what is it about the idea of a soul that even people who confess to not have one are hesitant to sell it? I have been trying, for the better part of ten years, to buy a soul. I’ve offered a dollar amount, between $10 and $50, for someone to sign a sheet of paper that says that I own their soul. Despite multiple debates with confessed atheists, no one has signed the contract. I have been able to buy several people’s Sense of Humor and one guy’s Dignity, but no souls. Additionally, will any Freakonomics reader take me up on this? I’m willing to spend $50 on souls.

One fellow, Jared, says he’ll take the offer:

Caleb B., I will absolutely sell you my soul. To be fair, this won’t preclude me from selling it again to other suckers who (a) believe in souls and (b) believe they can be readily transferred on purchase. To be clear I’m offering because I don’t believe (a).

Or does he?

In my opinion, Jared’s conditions make this a non-sell since he’s reserving the right to sell his soul again to someone else.  In other words, he’s trying to take Caleb’s money.

With these conditions, it would be easy for Jared to get his soul back if he ever decided he’d like to.  He’d just need to find a willing person to sell it to…again… and then buy it back from them.

I love Caleb’s approach.  It taps into what economist, Paul Samuelson, called revealed preferences or, as non-economists say, putting your money where your mouth is.

That is, we say we will behave one way and then we behave differently when we face the actual consequences.

How do you know?

In his book, The New Road to Serfdom, Daniel Hannan quotes Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (don’t ask):

The National Health Service is the closest thing the English have to a religion…  This made it quite extraordinarily difficult to reform.

I thought this was a nice observation.  In this post, I claimed that we are ruled by poor logic because the logic used to justify many of the things we are forced to support through government is poor.

But, maybe it’s not even poor logic.  Rather, it’s religion.

How much of what we believe is religion?  I’d say just about everything where you can’t point to evidence and sound reasons for why you believe it.

I see no problem when religious people say they believe in God because they just know.  That’s the whole point of their religion: to believe in something that doesn’t have proof.  That’s why it’s also called faith.

And, as long as they don’t force their faith on others, we’re all good.  In our country, they are free to practice their own faith without government interference.  And, as individuals we are generally very tolerant of other faiths, as well.

But I do have a problem when people want to force their religions on everyone by government action and are unwilling and/or unable to tell us why they believe what they do. That’s the same as enacting a zealous government religion.

Examples of zealous government religions include:

College education is good, government must make sure everyone can go.


Green energy is good.  Government must invest in it and develop it.


Healthcare is good, we must provide it through government.

Why do I call these zealous religions?

One reason I call these religions is because when I ask folks why they believe these things, so often the answer sounds a lot like religion. 

I just know I’m right.

They may be right, but I don’t find “I just know…” the least bit convincing.  How do you know?  That’s what I’m interested in.

Anyone who wants to force me to support their religion through the government ought to provide me a better answer than “I just know.”  I’d like an answer that I can better evaluate and truth test.

For those unwilling and unable to provide such an answer, their default position on matters that require forcing others to do something ought to be not forcing others to do something, at least until they can clearly explain why they they think they are right.

That seems reasonable to me. 

My guess is that they would expect the same from me.  For example, if I wanted to enact a new tax to build a nationwide network of bicycle trails, my guess is that they would be skeptical and want me to give them better reasoning than, “I just know it’s a good thing”. 

I call these zealous religions because of how they respond to non-believers.  When you point out to a believer that you do not share their belief and why, they often demonize you. 

I often hear responses to non-believers like:

You just don’t want poor people to have a chance at a college education!


You just want to protect the big oil companies!


You’d rather the sick and elderly go without medical treatment and die!

And, they don’t care if you tell them that these accusations are false.   This is usually where the exchange ends, on false grounds, in order to protect their religious beliefs.

The final reason I consider these beliefs to be religious is how the believers respond when you ask what if they are wrong?  What if the very beliefs they support, and want to force on others, actually have negative consequences, many of which are opposite of their desired result.

Here again, their answer sounds like that of a religious person.  I often hear something like:

Well, I would probably still support it, because at least, I feel like my intentions were in the right place.  At least I can say I tried.

This sounds a lot like Pascal’s wager.  French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, suggested that even if the existence of God could not be proven, a rational person would choose to believe because there’s potentially a lot to be gained and not much to lose.

A form of Pascal’s wager does drive a lot of political beliefs.  Most folks have much to gain by supporting nice-sounding beliefs (like avoiding being demonized for suggesting alternatives and a ticket into the ‘I care’ club), and not much to lose, because few of them pay or notice the direct costs of their beliefs.