Monday, October 15, 2012

Constrained Euvoluntarity: Roth and Kidney Exchanges

The big news today is that Al Roth and Lloyd Shapely won the Nobel in Economics. The responses from my economist friends have been largely tepid. I mostly understand their reservations, though I do not entirely share them. To me, Roth is a directional euvoluntaryist.

For those of you who may not be familiar with his work, he is less an observational economist and more of an engineer: he's created kidney exchanges where folks who need kidneys can pool and match donors with recipients. Family and friends can join in. The matching algorithms these exchanges use are suitable for a whole host of applications, from online dating to custom-made reduction gear replacement and even farming. For our purposes here, the interesting application is the kidneys. We've pointed out before that organ sales are aesthetically unpleasant and the resulting popular opposition can generate ugly consequences. Dialysis is not fun. Rather than shaking his fists at the misdirected moral intuitions of the median voter, Roth put his nose to the grindstone and created a matching algorithm that increased the number of transplants without offending  folks' anti-mercenary moral foibles.

So, is Roth a destination euvoluntaryist? If he were, he'd be pounding the pulpit for the freedom for people to do as they wished with their own bodies, including voluntary sales of vital organs, decrying exchanges as mere half-measures. No, I think he's a directional euvoluntaryist, interested in consequences, but willing to admit that the first-best solution is out of the field of play. I am quite confident that the people who have been able to obtain life-saving transplants thanks to his hard work certainly appreciate everything he's done. I for one favor his practical approach to expanding the freedom of association in a world of very real political constraints. Bravo.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?