Skip to content
Surprising Science

Applying Economics to Organ Transplants

Selling your organs is illegal in every country except Iran. But the WHO says the black market is massive. Can economists make the system more humane and efficient?

Can economists make the system for organ transplants more humane and efficient? Selling your organs — eyes, bone marrow, parts of livers, skin, or, yes, kidneys — is illegal in every country except Iran. But the World Health Organization describes the black market as massive and estimates one in every five kidneys transplanted per year comes from it. In the past few years foundations and policy scholars have started to consider creating economic incentives for the families of the recently deceased. Macabre though it sounds, it is something economists have been suggesting for at least 30 years.

It’s plain to see that I’m an optimist, sometimes more than is socially comfortable. The ease with which I dismiss the disastrous economic decline above serves as one example of that. I wrote that the recession will benefit our political system, and, before I cut this line, as having “rewarded our company for methodical execution and ruthless efficiency by removing competitors from the landscape.” I make no mention of the disastrous effects on millions of people, and the great uncertainty that grips any well-briefed mind, because it truly doesn’t stand in the foreground of my mind (despite suffering personal loss of wealth). Our species is running towards a precipice with looming dangers like economic decline, political unrest, climate crisis, and more threatening to grip us as we jump off the edge, but my optimism is stronger now than ever before. On the other side of that looming gap are extraordinary breakthroughs in healthcare, communications technology, access to space, human productivity, artistic creation and literally hundreds of fields. With the right execution and a little bit of luck we’ll all live to see these breakthroughs — and members of my generation will live to see dramatically lengthened life-spans, exploration and colonization of space, and more opportunity than ever to work for passion instead of simply working for pay. Instead of taking this space to regale you with the many personal and focused changes I intend to make in 2009, let me rather encourage you to spend time this year thinking, as I’m going to, more about what we can do in 2009 to positively affect the future our culture will face in 2020, 2050, 3000 and beyond.

Up Next