The Agenda

Virginia Postrel on the Paid-Donor Ban

Virginia Postrel’s latest column is on a fascinating issue that lies at the heart of how we think about money and markets:

Under the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, better known as NOTA, it’s a federal crime to give or receive “valuable consideration” for any transplantable organ or tissue, specifically including bone marrow. (Expenses incurred in making a donation, including not only medical costs but also travel and lost wages, are exempt.) The valuable consideration doesn’t have to be cash. A scholarship, a charitable contribution or even a free movie pass is enough to subject both parties to up to five years in prison and $50,000 in fines. Good intentions — or fatal consequences – – be damned.

The law subscribes to what Viviana Zelizer, an economic sociologist at Princeton University, calls the “hostile worlds” view. This is the assumption that, as Zelizer puts it, “money and intimacy represent contradictory principles whose intersection generates conflict, confusion and corruption.”

As [Amit] Gupta’s story illustrates, however, that’s not necessarily the case. Money can be an expression of commitment and a powerful spur to get people to act on their compassionate instincts. Financial incentives can overcome inertia and procrastination. They can steer people toward socially beneficial behavior. Nobel Prizes come with money, and we don’t, after all, expect every firefighter, nanny or transplant surgeon to work for free.

Strongly recommended. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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