Dynamist Blog

Kidney Blogging Cont'd

Amitai Etzioni, whose public persona is unmatched in its combination of self-righteousness and self-promotion, writes to the NYTBR to take issue with my review of Kieran Healy's Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs:

Virginia Postrel, a renowned libertarian, draws on "Last Best Gifts," by an economic sociologist, Kieran Healy (Jan. 28), to argue that the altruistic "ideology" of giving the gift of life stands in the way of developing a market in organs.

Actually, what we need is more, not fewer, evocations of our moral responsibilities....

...if the market steps in, we know from experience in other nations that the rich would purchase the organs and the poor would risk their health by selling theirs. One can be a market zealot and still argue for keeping the money-changers out of this temple.

While I appreciate being referred to as "renowned" (if only), Etzioni's letter beautifully illustrates Healy's point: that the debate over organs (and blood, which I didn't have room to discuss) unnecessarily and inaccurately posits a sharp split between market exchange and social and cultural commitments. Although Etzioni wants to box me in as a "market zealot," that's an absurdly--and deliberately--reductionist view of my thought on this issue and many others. The letter also demonstrates that Etzioni is not a particularly careful reader or at least isn't interested in the hard empirical facts of the kidney crisis. Rising to the bait, I sent him the following email:

Dear Amitai,
Thanks for calling me renowned. We can only wish...

Alas, while your proposal might help the relatively short waiting list for hearts, it wouldn't do much for the 60,000-plus Americans waiting for kidneys. The numbers simply don't add up. Only living donors can make up the difference. I've contributed a kidney. How about you?

That last line is pretty snarky, especially since I'm well aware that Etzioni is too old to be an organ donor. But, like many other people, he treats kidney donation as an inconceivable risk to one's health and the idea of taking money for it as therefore inherently exploitative. Hence it's worth pointing out that I'm not advocating paying people for something I wasn't willing to do for free.

His response is telling, since it contradicts his anti-market propaganda in the Times.

dear viriginia
I wish my organs would be useable. I salute your donation which I am sure was made out of moral motives and not a transaction. I am not against a "market" as long as we first do as much as we can with donations, as we do with blood.
best amitai

So why, other than self-promotion, did he bother spilling ink in the Timees and defaming the idea of any incentives for organs? I suspect that the question answers itself.

On a more positive note, it looks like House will vote on Tuesday to pass the Living Organ Kidney Donation Clarification Act, which I blogged about here. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jay Inslee and the late Rep. Charlie Norwood, will make it clear that "paired donations" are legal. Let's hope the Senate follows suit right away.

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