Money Changes Everything

In the first chapter of SuperFreakonomics, we write at some length about the economics of prostitution, both among street prostitutes and a high-end call girls.

One of the most interesting aspects of prostitution is that it involves a good or service (or whatever you want to call it) — sex — which, when undertaken for free by consenting adults is legal but which becomes illegal when money changes hands.

Can you think of other goods and services that share this trait? Let’s also consider examples where money doesn’t necessarily make the practice illegal, but at the very least taboo or socially repugnant.

I will put a few more examples below the fold, so as not to ruin the guessing game, but I am hoping you all can collectively expand this list many times over.

A few other goods and services that come to mind: human organs; children (you can put your baby up for adoption but cannot sell it); and — my favorite, suggested by a smart fellow I met recently — political favors.


mail order brides - not illegal but socially frowned upon

Richard B.


Nothing illegal about disclosing (or choosing not to disclose) unsavory facts about someone. But it becomes illegal as a commercial transaction.


Money could make the difference between a copyright infringement and fair use, all other things equal.


Rescue assistance: if you see someone drowning, you are free to help or not help. But if you tell her you jump in to save her only in exchange for $50, you are (rightly?) perceived as a jerk.


Somewhat related to sex is marriage. The 'sham marriage for residency/ passport' scheme is outright illegal, but even things like mail order brides fall in the socially repugnant cash transaction realm.


Context-dependent example: partner dancing.

In tango community there is a concept of a taxi dancer - a partner one can hire for the evening for a fee. In Buenos Aires taxi dancers of either persuasion are available, they normally work with tourist dancers (who are often not good enough to get invited to dance otherwise).

However, hiring a partner is frowned upon in other dance communities. A few weeks ago a beginner swing dancer posted on a community forum looking for a partner-for-hire. A lively discussion ensued, with many people weighting in that he should not even consider hiring people to dance with him, but ask nicely instead.


Charity work:
Volunteering your time for a non-profit is considered a virtue yet when people learn about employees (most notably the CEO) of these organizations earning anything more than a living wage, people become outraged as if working for free could be a full-time job.


#13, I think when #8 said "If the person pays money willingly for protection from mafia or underworld then it is legal" he was referring to taxes funding police. We pay for police to protect us from organized crime, but if you paid the criminals directly for the same benefit it would be illegal (especially if you withheld the money from the state to do it).

science minded American woman traveler

Dear --aa,

Wrong (as in incorrect) on both counts. I can think of at least one specific instance of a case where the individual recipient of a political favor has a fiduciary responsibility to someone else and was unknowingly induced to act in a way contrary to that really necessary to fulfil his obligation, I am about to go to the law library to find other similar instances.

Similarly, as far as such so-called "repugnant transactions" are concerned, it might seem as if no third party would ever be harmed. Yet, I know of at least 3 instances where such parties were really harmed wherein it would be wise to refer to such instances as relatively repugnant in the sense that, at the time of each transaction, this was the only way in which the parties could impose their real legitimate will on others without their resistance (in the sense that it was eventually found to be in the others interest to comply.

So, clearly, here is one thing that money cannot buy and does not change as far as wills and trusts are concerned. Thanks for the `free' legal advice. This is just what the doctor ordered in a manner of speaking of needing to remain calm and focused for the purpose of finishing off what I started.

Robyn Ann Goldstein (2009)



giving your friends or family members a simple favor...

imagine, for example, if you were to try to charge them for giving them a ride or dinner

Joseph Parker Klein

According to Steve Cooley the district attorney of Los Angeles, giving somebody pot for medicinal uses is legal, but having a caretaker be reimbursed for their services is illegal


All sorts of things in college athletics. Fine to provide free tuition, room, and board. But can't provide a salary (let's not even get into recruiting).


Political favors, at least in the US, ARE legal. In fact, there is an entire career-path (lobbyist) depending on that fact.

Money is not the issue; what you really mean is items with monetary value. Whether you pay a prostitute in cash or gold doesn't matter, just as the IRS doesn't care whether income takes the form of cash or trips to the Bahamas.

The same thing is true when lobbyists provide research or services to lawmakers, connect them with donors, etc. Cash may not have changed hands, but something of value did. The lawmaker is now obligated to repay the favor, either through a desire to continue receiving the items of value, or through basic human nature.


Radio play for songs.


How about drugs?
Legal from the pharmacy, illegal from the gangbanger behind the supermarket....

Chris T.

Legal advice from a disbarred lawyer or an out-of-state lawyer, in a state where the unlicensed practice of law is illegal

Joe Torben

In Sweden, it is legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it.

In Sweden, it is legal to buy a rental apartment, but illegal to sell it.

This is true, and not misleading in the slightest. The law is actually that inconsistent.

(As was noted earlier in the thread, it is perfectly legal to pay for sex if you take pictures, even in Sweden. It is not legal to sell your rental apartment, pictures or no pictures.)


Pastoral care, charity services provided by religious orders who have taken a vow of poverty (e.g. Franciscans)?


The fire department will respond to an emergency call for free -- even if you're not a taxpaying resident of your municipality -- and would face universal condemnation for charging you for doing so. Same goes for the police department. Volunteer fire departments will respond even if you don't donate to them..

Also, while you can't sell whole blood and can only donate it, this doesn't apply to blood plasma.


marriage, tickets as in scapling