≡ Menu

Legalize Organ Sales

Although common, the argument that society’s "repugnance" at the idea of body-organ sales is a sufficient reason to prevent such sales is also curious, even cruel.

In this Econ One On One debate (at WSJ.com), Harvard’s Alvin Roth says that

It is illegal to sell horsemeat for human consumption in California, not because a persuasive case was made that the costs exceed the benefits, but because 4,670,524 people voted to make it illegal in a 1998 referendum. This and many other examples persuade me there is something about repugnance that we economists need to understand.

Indeed so.  Voters no doubt do feel repugnance at commerce in such things.  But one question is: how much?  When voters are asked to cast a ballot about such things, they do so largely free of charge — that is, they get to express their opinions on the cheap, without any obligation to reflect seriously upon the issue before them.

I wonder how likely it is that any randomly chosen voter would let repugnance prevent him from buying a kidney if such commerce were necessary to save the life of his child or his wife or one of his parents?  Put differently, suppose that each of the persons who philosophically and abstractly votes to prevent organ sales were confronted with his or her own real-world circumstance — a circumstance full of personal costs and benefits.  If many (most? all?) of these persons would in these real-life, actual situations choose to buy a kidney in order to save a loved one, then it is untrue that voters feel sufficient repugnance of such sales to justify morally the prohibition of such sales.

Many years ago I explored
the different meanings of the verb "to want," and arguing that the most trustworthy pollster is the market.