Sunday, May 23, 2010

Do two rights make a wrong?

Users of my favorite textbook know that it includes, in Chapter 7, a case study on whether kidneys should be traded in a market.  Today's NY Times has a related article.

The paper's so-called "Ethicist" is dealing with this situation:

1. Person A receives a kidney transplant as a donation from person B.
2. A short time later, person B is having financial troubles and her home may go into foreclosure.  Person A is considering giving her some money to help out.

So what does the "Ethicist" say about all this?  Apparently, both of these gifts are noble acts, worthy of the highest praise and admiration. Unless, that is, there is some reason to think they are linked together.  In that case, the reallocation of resources (kidney, cash) would be a despicable market transaction.

I suspect that few economists would concur.  Indeed, the essence of market transactions is a kind of reciprocal altruism, enforced by contract.  It might be nice if the world could work using pure altruism alone, but that seems highly unrealistic.  The sad truth is that under the Ethicist's code of conduct, we have more deaths and more foreclosures than necessary, all in the name of fairness.