Sunday, September 23, 2007

The ears have walls

We remind students that there is a natural human tendency to "truck and barter" and that buyers and sellers are happy to see each other (this is not, unfortunately, obvious to everyone). And absent force or fraud, there are very few caveats. Externalities not easily subject to exchange usually come up.

But there is more. Prof. Alvin Roth writes about "Repugnance as a Constraint on Markets" in the Summer 2007 Journal of Economic Perspectives. The other two papers in the JEP Symposium on organ transplant bans document the staggering human costs in markets for organs.

Here is the abstract of Roth's paper:

This essay examines how repugnance sometimes constrains what
transactions and markets we see. When my colleagues and I have helped design
markets and allocation procedures, we have often found that distaste for certain
kinds of transactions is a real constraint, every bit as real as the constraints
imposed by technology or by the requirements of incentives and efficiency. I'll
first consider a range of examples, from slavery and indentured servitude (which
are much more repugnant now than they once were) to lending money for interest
(which used to be widely repugnant but no longer is), and from bans on eating
horse meat in California to bans on dwarf tossing in France. An example of
special interest will be the widespread laws against the buying and selling of
organs for transplantation. The historical record suggests that while repugnance
can change over time, it can persist for a very long time, although changes in
institutions that reflect repugnance can occur relatively quickly when the
underlying repugnance changes.

This is all interesting stuff. Some people are actually uncomfortable with any and all trade. But many of them routinely wear their "compassion" on their sleeves. They are complicit in unnecessary death and suffering.

It is thought that it takes gruesome photots to get some people to connect the dots. Illustrations of diseased organs will soon have to appear on cigarette packages in various countries. Animal-rights activists routinely post photos of abused animals. Conditions in poor third-world places are also used to elicit donations.

I have no idea whether dramatic photos of the near-dead on organ transplant waiting lists would have an impact among elites who high-mindedly support bans on organ transplants. Their aversion to (and ignorance of) exchange is so powerful that they would have thousands die each year.

Photos may be the way to go as long as the ears have walls.