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Sell Your Kidney, Make a Profit

April 20, 2001

[NOTE: The Mises Institute neither buys nor sells kidney, nor any other bodily organ, nor are we really prepared to receive bodily organs as in-kind gifts.]

On April 18, the Fox News Channel reported that the federal government, led by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, is trying to rally support for organ donations.  Even celebrities are supportive of this effort. Sports announcer James Brown said that, even though he hates needles, he still entered the donor registry and that there are more "big guys" (to use his term) out there who can do the same.  The problem is that organ donation mainly depends upon human love and kindness.

Before I offer the solution that has been stated time and again by free-market economists, I want to focus on a person’s property right to himself.  Why in the world would you care if I wanted to allow myself to be cut open so that I could sell my kidney to someone who needed it?  You say, "Why don’t you just give it to him?"

Sorry, I’m not that nice. 

Right now, 75,863 men, women, and children need organ transplants. Approximately 23,000 will receive them this year. Fifteen people die every day for lack of a donor. For kidneys in particular,  44,349 people need a transplant, but only approximately 13,000  will get them.

If money is the catalyst that relieves the shortage, and if the money/organ exchange is voluntary, then why prevent this transaction? Obviously, I want the money more than the kidney, and the sick person wants the kidney more than the money. This is mutually beneficial exchange.

Many people protest by stating that this would give criminals an incentive to create a black market for organs.  The reality that exists today is that there is a black market for organs and that there is potential for corruption by rationing organs with waiting lists.  By legalizing the selling of organs, the supply of organs would increase, and their prices would drop.

Henry Hazlitt’s two main points in Economics in One Lesson are that bad economists look at the short term, not the long term, and that they look at the effect on one group of people, not all.  In other words, good economists consider the unintended consequences of public policy legislation. Obviously, our policymakers do not have good economists advising them, or, if they do, they are ignoring them.

What about organs that are necessary for life but that cannot be donated by a living person?  Well, I could contract with another party so that, after my death, my organ or organs could be sold, with the proceeds going to my family.  Of course, it would be nice if this income wouldn’t be taxed, but that is another story.

A. Frank Adams, A.H.Barnett, and David Kaserman (Contemporary Economic Policy, April 1999) and William Barnett II, Michael Saliba, and Deborah Walker (The Independent Review, Winter 2001) are among those who have studied the economic issues of supply and demand of the current and alternative organ markets. However, even more important than the economics is the moral issue. Who owns my body?  Whatever your religious views, I hope it is clear that the answer is not, and should not be, the government.

If I weigh the costs and benefits of selling my organs, why should anybody else care?  Am I forcing anyone else to give up a kidney?  In fact, I am helping my fellow man in two ways. First, they might be the recipient of a needed organ one day, and second, the incentive to "harvest" organs will dramatically drop once there is a free-market price rather than an artificial, restricted-supply price. Therefore, the risk that someone will be "forced" to give up their organs will be reduced.  

Maybe I am exaggerating, because, obviously, this is not a huge problem in the United States.  But what about people, including children, in Third-World nations who are at risk?  How? If I am a rich person and I don’t want to wait or can’t wait on the list any longer, I might be willing to pay a high price for an organ, regardless of where it came from. Is this what we want? Has our "morality" blinded us?

There are those who are against the selling of organs because it would put people, primarily the poor, at surgical risk.  But should the government legislate risk-taking?  Would driving a car be legal? What about flying? Bungee jumping? Roller coasters? Where would it stop?  

In fact, maybe the poor, who opponents believe would be the primary entrants into the market, might actually benefit from a higher income.  Eventually, as the supply of organs went up, the economic benefits would be lower; consequently, people would not be able to retire off the sale of one kidney. In any case, a "small" lump-sum payment can still be helpful to many Americans.  Again, don’t people know their own situation better than anybody else?  

If the federal government wants to really help the current organ-shortage crisis, then it should remove the barriers to organized organ buying and selling.

The most important and sacred property right is the right to one’s own body.  One of the most important concepts in economics is that both parties win in a voluntary exchange.  It appears, then, that those who want to change the status quo have morality on their side.

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Ninos P. Malek teaches economics at San Jose State University (San Jose, CA), De Anza College (Cupertino, CA), and Valley Christian High School (San Jose, CA). See his archive and send him MAIL. See also, The Case for Selling Human Organs.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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