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Shortages, Bloody Shortages

Tags Free MarketsHealthPrivate Property

10/31/2006Mihai Sarbu

It seems that here in Romania — the home of Vlad Dracula — our hospitals are running out of blood. The number of people volunteering to donate blood has declined steadily in recent years. Health-care professionals fear that joining the European Union will bring crisis-level blood shortages. Why? European regulations forbid any kind of remuneration for this service.

In Romania, people who want to give blood receive a food ticket of approximately $11 and two days off from work. It's not much but at least it's something, and even this meager compensation has forestalled disaster.

According to the Charter of the fundamental rights of the European Union, giving blood should be a completely altruistic affair, untainted by base material considerations.

Chapter I of the Charter on "Dignity" includes a section on the "Right to the integrity of the person." Here is how your "dignity" is to be protected:

"In the fields of medicine and biology the following must be respected in particular: the prohibition on making the human body and its parts as such a source of financial gain."

This means that in order to protect your dignity, the EU stands ready to tell you just what you can and cannot do with yourself.

With no more legal basis for even the most minimal payment, we may be heading toward a very serious blood shortage.

Now, you may or may not agree with the altruistic vision of blood donation — I might feel uneasy about accepting any money in cases such as this one. But that is my choice. What is alarming is that with this piece of legislation the state assumes control over our bodies, dictating how are we allowed to use them, and for what.

Furthermore, we have here an excellent example of a shortage created by a government that ignores the law of supply and demand. Let's take the economic issue first, and then I'll return to the moral question in a bit.

By forbidding any kind of payment for blood, the government pushes down the price of blood to zero. As a consequence, all those who are in a position to provide it, unless they are driven by idealistic motives, will stay away from the collection centers. It is as simple as that. You really don't need a PhD in economics to figure out that much — unless your job is to legislate. The only way to bring back the people to the collection centers is by providing the necessary incentives.

The choice to give blood is no different from other choices. It is based on selecting on the margin from a range of possible options, with the cost of that option being the next most highly ranked alternative. We need reasons to move a particular option among our rankings into the number one spot, displacing the alternative uses of our time and energies. Remuneration can accomplish that task by compensating us for our costs and providing an objective reward for performing certain services.

In short, the best solution would be to eliminate any law that prevents the formation of a free market for blood. The right incentives will be found on the free market and no government will be able to guess what those are, without paying either too much or too little. The Romanian government had previously decided what your blood should cost and how you will be paid (out of taxpayer money, of course). A free market, in contrast, will provide for both patients and donors what they need: the patient gets the blood, while the donor may get money, or time off in purgatory, according to his or her expectation. For many poor people, who don't really have much to live on, this could only be a blessing, just as it may be a blessing for the taxpayer, who foots the bill of the government handouts to them.

The main objection to a free market for blood is that this would commodify the human body. The view is that there are many things on which you should not put a price because that will, supposedly, degrade them. Yet, putting a price on something does not degrade that thing, unless you have something against commerce as such. The price does not express the intrinsic value of anything. It simply signals the quantity of money — which serves only as a proxy for future purchases of goods and services — that you are ready to give up in order to acquire it, correlated with the quantity of money that a seller is ready to accept.

Money does not express value. It is only a tool for facilitating exchange. For example, it is autumn now, and just outside the window near me there are leafs that are turning yellow and red. Can you express the intrinsic value of that beauty in money? Of course not. You can only evaluate the willingness of somebody to sacrifice some material possession in order to be able to see this miracle. That is what it is to put a price on something, and nothing more. Putting a price on body parts does not degrade them; it is simply a way to introduce those body parts into the flux of exchanges that is the market.

We see no problem in charging for health care services. That doesn't "commodify" human well-being. People charge money for food without degrading the eating process. We pay for symphony and opera tickets, but the music does not thereby experience degradation. Why should the introduction of money somehow morally compromise the life-saving service of blood giving?

Also, by creating a free market for blood (actually, letting the market rise spontaneously, because you cannot "create" a market) a price mechanism puts it in the service of those in need. A market has a natural tendency to diversify, so you will have in time blood of different qualities sold at different prices, to suit every need. This would, obviously, drive downwards the price of blood in general, for the benefit of those less well off.

There is a serious moral issue involved here, and it has to do with property rights. Because this piece of legislation infringes the most basic of all rights: self-ownership. The only reason you have any rights is because you have the freedom and responsibility to dispose of yourself, mind and body. Freedom of association (the basis of society), freedom of expression, and all the rest are meaningless unless they stem from self-ownership.

If your rights are merely a social convention, than the same social convention that gave them to you may very well take them back. If government regulates what you can put into your body and what you may give away and under what conditions, it also has the power to regulate what you put into your mind and what your mind produces.

Finally, there is the utilitarian consideration. Without a market for blood, people will die. Do we really want to sacrifice more lives in service to the god of socialist economic management?