In January of this year, Booth Professor and Nobel Laureate Gary S. Becker wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal advocating an open market for organs. He, along with Julio J. Elias of the Universidad del CEMA in Argentina, argued that paying people for their organs would increase the supply of organs, reduce wait times, and save lives. Since its publication, news outlets from coast to coast have covered the issue, sparking debate and discussion by Americans from every walk of life.
Now the question of whether payments for human kidneys should be established in an effort to extend the lives of patients with kidney disease has been posed to the IGM Economic Expert Forum panelists and their responses were decidedly mixed.
Although nearly half of all the respondents agreed that payments were a good idea, they nearly all indicated caution with their votes. “It is important that the market is ‘well regulated’ in order to avoid abuse and exploitation of the vulnerables,” remarked Markus Brunnermeier of Princeton. Darrel Duffie of Stanford expressed similar concerns when he noted, “Under strong governance that mitigates exploitation, this market may save lives on mutually consenting terms.”
A healthy one-third of the panel was uncertain about the implementation of a payment system, largely citing lack of sufficient information. “How will we deal with donors who don’t understand risks, not to mention increased incentives to steal and import organs, and perceived inequities?” asked Richard Schmalensee of MIT. Similarly, Stanford’s Richard Hall noted, “It’s hard to know because we don’t have much of an understanding of why people make organ gifts.”
Ethics were top of mind for the nearly 20 percent of experts who rejected the payment notion. MIT’s Abhijit Banerjee wrote, “That would mean valuing people’s lives by their incomes. We already to that but moving further in that direction seems wrong.” Larry Samuelson of Yale agreed, explaining, “We need to rationalize our organ allocation mechanism, but a market is not the only way, and it is not obviously the best way.”
One aspect of this poll was that panel members took note of the fact that their views, as economists, might significantly differ from those of the general public. Chicago Booth’s Richard Thaler commented, “How should we incorporate the fact that nearly all non-economists hate this idea? Do we declare them wrong and proceed?”