Organ markets and fairness
A friend directed me to this interesting essay by Michael Sandel on what the scope of markets ought to be limited to. I highly recommend it because it is very nicely written. This may come as a surprise but I actually agree with the fundamental idea – there are things that should remain outside the scope of the ‘economic sphere’ and within the ‘social sphere’. I agree with him about best man toasts, gifts etc. I strongly disagree about kidneys.
A reading of his essay would turn up three reasons to oppose kidney markets: 1) They’re unfair 2) They’re corrupting and as a result of which 3) Legalising sales may paradoxically reduce the supply.
Let’s start with the first:
The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest. A peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea to feed his starving family, but his agreement may not really be voluntary. He may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.
If the money he receives reduces the crushing burden of his situation, is he made better off? Yes. So what exactly is the objection?
The problem lies in the word ‘fairness’. While we don’t have to pull up the Scott Adams quote, the vagueness of the term makes any debate impossible. Sandel says it isn’t ‘fair’ that the impoverished Indian farmer has to sell his kidney due to circumstances. I say it’s not ‘fair’ that the peasant doesn’t have to option of selling his kidney to improve his situation when all else fails, just because a bunch of wealthy westerners who do have options don’t wanted be tainted by the association. The discussion goes nowhere.
Since we can’t examine Sandel’s ‘fairness’, let’s see if the implications of the concept make sense. Suppose I’m a wealthy economist (har har) who rents a nice flat and is now looking for a maid. I get two applicants, first time workers, identical except in one respect: one of them is a local looking to earn a bit of extra money and the other is a desperate woman who has run away from an abusive husband in her native village and will starve to death if she doesn’t get work soon. By Sandel’s logic I should hire the former, since the latter has been ‘coerced’ and any agreement she and I come to will not be ‘voluntary’. This is not a forced example: poor people do desperate things all the time, including entering contracts with rich people; banning them from doing isn’t a good idea, morally. The ‘inequality’ line of thought has the same impact: perfectly equality occurs almost nowhere. By this argument, I shouldn’t pay a cycle-rickshawala* Rs.20 to take me to college; I doubt the warm glow of moral superiority I enjoy will make up for his lost income.
Phrased differently, Sandel’s fairness and equality principles** – as he conceives them – are not principles we want to adopt as a society, no matter how nice they sound. They will hurt the poor – and I don’t know what moral code considers that a worthwhile trade-off.
One may well argue that the poor should be uplifted until they’re at equal footing. I’d agree wholeheartedly. However, as a society, we’ve so far not been able to do so. Until we do, why sacrifice their well-being because we’re incompetent? People should be allowed to do desperate things when circumstances force them to, if we can’t lift their burdens. People should be allowed to deal with un-equals, if we can’t equalize them.
Next post: moral corruption.
*who ferry passengers in the Delhi heat, the cold, and rain, and sleep on their rickshaws.
** As I see it, the fairness principle is ‘a person should be forced to do X by circumstances’. The equality principle is ‘a person should not enter a contract with someone who isn’t his/her equal.’