I have my students write papers on the intersection of markets and some sticky ethical questions. Should parents be permitted to sell their babies? If you allow a market in kidneys, would it be permissible for a purchaser to use it as wall decoration or a lawn ornament? And so on.
Let’s be agnostic about all of these issues for the time being, I just wanted to illustrate a common argument made by students against legalizing the sale of various things like babies, body parts, and themselves (prostitution for example). Students argue that by allowing a market in these things it is exploitive not just because the poor cannot afford those things (that is a discussion for a different day), but because the poor are “forced” to sell these things (or at least there are more pressures on the poor to sell them than the non-poor).
What to make of such an argument? I think three or four points stand out.
- Allowing for the sale of something that is currently not legal is adding to the options of a poor person. In a world where kidney sales are illegal, the poor have a choice of “selling one” for $0.00 or selling one for $10,000 or whatever price would prevail. Isn’t exploitation defined by limiting the actions of people? If the poor do wish to sell their kidney in a world when it is illegal, aren’t there even stronger incentives for them to sell than when there are not free markets? Why is that? Because when the legal sale of organs is prohibited, the black market “price” of a kidney is likely to be much higher than when there is an open market. Yes, the transactions costs of getting the kidney sold are higher and it is probably more dangerous to sell one, but the financial gain from selling is larger in a black market. Wouldn’t that put even more pressure for the poor to sell?
- Suppose we take the exploitation argument seriously. The poor are too poor to make good decisions about whether to sell a kidney and they are also too stupid to know the right questions to ask – and suppose you are comfortable with that position. Would you permit a kidney market if we had a rule with it that required any seller of a kidney to have an annual income of at least $60,000 or to have a minimum net worth of $200,000? Do you think the poor would find this fair? What about you? I am sure we’d see more than a few discrimination suits follow from such a law. But that law would overcome the exploitation problem, wouldn’t it? If your objection to markets is that the poor are forced to sell, then simply prohibit them from selling! Ask yourself what consequences would arise from such a rule.
- Suppose I take your argument seriously about the poor. Why does this argument apply here to kidneys and prostitution, but not to virtually anything else that people might sell? Isn’t it the case that the poor have more pressure to sell ANY valuable asset they own? Would it be good policy to render valueless anything of value that the poor own? Or would it be good policy to take away anything valuable from the poor so that they don’t do something stupid like liquidate it and realize its cash value? Seriously, if a poor family owns a house, why wouldn’t they sell it just to make a quick buck just like you claim they would a kidney? And yes, I know you have two kidneys, but a poor family could go rent a slummy apartment somewhere if they sold the house – that’s the analog of leaving yourself in slummy health. Do you wish to go so far as to take these assets from the poor?
- What is different about selling a kidney or your body from otherwise working in the labor force? Is not the argument above (that the poor are exploited because they are forced or more likely to sell their assets) even more true when applied to the “normal” labor market. “The poor have low or no income. They should be willing to do anything just for a buck” so say the anti-kidney sellers. Of course, but does that not apply to “doing anything to earn an income legitimately?” Should we therefore make the selling of labor services illegal for all people just because there would be more pressure on the poor to work if it was legal to do so? This makes no sense. In fact, isn’t it incredibly desirable to have the poor react more to this “pressure” to sell when it comes to labor services? And don’t people argue that the poor are not sufficiently incentivized to do this? So how can it be the case there the poor have a large incentive to inflict pain on themselves to sell a kidney, but have little incentive to provide more formal labor services? Please do enjoy getting out of that pretzel.