Markets in everything

Reading: I’ve got debts, please buy my kidneys” The Times September 27th 2009

Discussion question: What are some different ways in which we could allocate kidneys?

In April 2021 a New Jersey man sued the federal government for the right to sell his own kidneys:

“If the opportunity existed so that I could help out someone in need while helping myself, I might do it,” Bellocchio said.

Bellocchio argues that kidney transplants are low-risk procedures, and notes that you can donate an organ — even though you can’t sell one.

“Altruistic donors are lauded for their selflessness. Their vital role in saving lives is undeniable,” the court papers say.

“However, demand outstrips supply, and there is no valid constitutional or public policy rationale why one should not be able to receive a profit from such a transaction.”

Further reading: Postrel, V., “Here’s Looking at You, Kidney” Texas Monthly, June 2006

The issue of repugnance rests on the claim that the moral status of an activity shouldn’t hinge on whether money changes hands. If something is morally permissible to exchange for free, then people should be allowed to trade. Another way of thinking about this is that the reason slavery was wrong was because of the slavery, not the profits. If someone “donated” a slave, that wouldn’t be ok.

Common rejoinders to markets include things like:

  • Financial compensation commodities the good/service and thus changes our relationship with it. As Peter Jaworski explains in the podcast linked below, we buy and sell dogs and that doesn’t mean we treat them as mere objects.

Consider the case of sulphur dioxide emissions (via McMillan, J., (2002) Reinventing the Bazaar, W.W. Norton & Co. (p.182-187) link), and notice how for many environmental activists the moral objections to trading rights to pollute seemingly outweighed the dramatic progress on reducing harmful pollution. This implies that switching people’s mindset to tolerate market mechanisms could be an incredibly powerful tool to improve the world around us.

The Story of Vaccine CA is a really good example of an urgent allocation problem that cannot be solved by markets or by central planning. It’s an ethnographic and anecdotal account of a 200 day period where tech volunteers got together to alert American’s on where covid shots were available.


  • Ep. 2, Peter Jaworski – Should Markets Have Limits? The Curious Task, August 14th 2019 – in this interview Peter Jaworski argues that If it’s morally permissible to donate blood plasma it should be ok to be paid for it. In fact, if we pay companies for plasma bought from Americans, why not pay Canadians? And if every other person involved (doctors, nurses, equipment suppliers, logistics) is being paid, why shouldn’t the person making the donation?
Learning Objectives: Understand the scope and ethical boundaries of markets

Focus on diversity: Virginia Postrel’s decision to donate a kidney, and write about it, provides a personal and inspirational view of the topic.