Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mankiw: Do two rights make a wrong?

Greg Mankiw has a very interesting post today about kidney donations and quid pro quo.

I'd like to think he's making a common sense point, but I don't know how common his view is. According to one Dutch survey, most people (in the Netherlands presumably) seem not to like the idea of compensating kidney donors. Oddly, they were more comfortable if the donor were compensated with health insurance than if he were compensated with cash.

One objection would be from egalitarians: the rich would keep both of their kidneys, while the poor would be more likely to donate one (and undergo a potential dangerous surgery). But they are freely taking this risk and feel that they are better off taking the risk than not taking it (they get money and they have saved a life). The counter-counteragument is that they may be making the choice under duress, so it's not completely free. But this seems like it's something that could be quite difficult for us to know. And trying to prevent people from making transactions for the wrong reasons is a little bit too much micromanagement in my opinion. By similar logic we could ban unemployed people from going to law school. They didn't really want to take on all that debt. They were just desperate.

It's not intrinsically wrong, as far as I can see, to donate a kidney to make money. So, I'm willing let many thousands of people do it, knowing that maybe a few will do it without having completely pure intentions or without fully thinking the decision through, if we can save many thousands of lives in the process.


  1. Greg, this is a nice post.

    I think you're right that "trying to prevent people from making transactions for the wrong reasons" is often overreaching. But it might not be true about organs in particular. A more plausible argument against organ markets, I think, doesn't claim that the poor who sell are acting under duress, but rather that they are in some sense being exploited.

    Doesn't it seem to you that selling organs raises somewhat different moral questions than, say, selling the family car? I don't think your post addresses this. Think about arguments regarding human dignity, for example.

    It's interesting that one can sell eggs and sperm, but not organs or blood. Is there a good reason for this distinction, we might ask?

  2. Human dignity considerations seem a little nebulous in this case. Is there a particular argument that you're thinking of?

    It seems to me that if it's dignified to give away a kidney, it's probably dignified to do it for money. I think Mankiw does a good job of showing that tit-for-tat is clearly OK, so why not just turn tit-for-tat into a transaction?

    I agree that the issue is a little more complicated than selling a car.

    You make a good point about eggs and sperm. It's interesting that there's not more outcry about that.

  3. To motivate human dignity concerns (not to say that I think this is the way to approach this issue), think about the 'transaction' of consensual sex. It becomes a lot less, well, dignified if there is an explicit monetary price for the exchange. Or think about caring for a family member. "Ok son, I've raised you for 18 years, here's the bill."

    Here's a link to Pope Benedict XVI discussing this issue.