NY Times Piece on Organ Donation and the Free Market

December 12th, 2010

Interesting piece from the New York Times, titled Organ Donation: Let the Market Rule?

Organ transplantation sometimes seems to defy the laws of supply and demand: thousands of New York bodies need organs they don’t have, and thousands more have organs that, because of an untimely demise, they no longer need. But the path between those two groups crisscrosses people’s religious beliefs, their feelings about death and bodily integrity and their ability to make their wishes known to their next of kin.

The reason why organ transplants defy supply and demand is because of artificial barriers to entry imposed by the government–namely the National Organ Transplant Act which prevents markets for organs.

How to get around this? The TImes reports that other countries have a Cass Sunstein-esque Nudge program, where everyone is “opted in” to organi donations, and you need to manually opt out.

Some other countries take a more proactive approach: they regard everyone as a potential donor. If you don’t want anyone shopping your kidney around when you die, you have to say so in advance. The burden, that is, falls on those who opt out of the system, rather than those who opt in.

Something like that would do a lot to save American lives.

And it would never happen here. Can you imagine how it would play on the evening news? The government cutting open defenseless people and stealing their tender parts.

The Times recognizes that market forces can help resolve this supply shortage, citing Gary Becker!:

Some economists have suggested adjusting the supply-and-demand problem through market incentives. Instead of asking people to donate their organs, why not just pay for them? The suggestion seems to outrage many people, who perhaps picture greedy zillionaires carving up poor working stiffs with a diamond-encrusted scalpel. But what if it worked like this: while you’re healthy, you volunteer your kidneys. Then when you die, and the kidneys are removed, your family would be compensated for your funeral expenses. That doesn’t seem quite so outrageous, does it?

Gary Becker, the Nobel laureate who teaches economics at the University of Chicago, has proposed something even more radical: paying people to part with their organs now, while they are still using them. You’ve got two kidneys but you can get by with one. You’ve got only one liver but you don’t really need that meaty chunk at the end. How does $30,000 sound?

In an interview, he said the idea should not be that shocking. As long as exchanges were carefully regulated, no one would be forced into it. It would solve an otherwise intractable problem. And unlike the current system, in which friends and relatives are often guilted into becoming donors, a market-based approach would compensate families fairly for their discomfort and risk.

I’m glad to see that the Times is looking favorably on the idea of organ markets.