The Opposite of Repugnance

Al Roth is a truly interesting economic thinker, with an emphasis on what has come to be known as market design. He has created systems that help new doctors find an appropriate residency, that help students find an appropriate high school, and that help people dying of kidney failure find a new kidney.

None of these results would have been possible without a keen understanding of game theory; his solutions are market-based but also highly cognizant of strategic intent, psychology, and even mood.

We touched on Roth’s work in a column we wrote a while back about the possibility of a market for human organs. One big hurdle in establishing such a market is what Roth calls the repugnance factor. For a variety of reasons, the idea of buying and selling human organs is one that people find repugnant — at least at this point in time, and in our country but not in every country.

What is interesting about repugnance is how it shifts over time. My favorite example is life insurance. Until the mid-19th century, this concept was widely held to be repugnant — it meant placing a bet, after all, on the untimely death of a loved one. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer has written, people thought that life insurance “transformed the sacred event of death into a vulgar commodity.”

That, of course, has changed. So have many other onetime repugnancies.

Now, on his Market Design blog, Al Roth writes about something that’s perhaps even more interesting: the opposite of repugnance. Or, as he puts it, “transactions that, as a society, we often seek to promote, for reasons other than efficiency or pure political expediency.”

Here are the items he lists:

+ Monogamous marriage between a man and a woman
+ Home ownership in the U.S.
+ Food production by small farmers
+ Fishing by small fishing boats
+ The right to purchase guns

His readers chime in with a few more ideas:

+ Donating to charity
+ Education
+ Hiring the disabled, veterans, ex-cons, and other members of “historically underrepresented groups.”

I am surprised nobody claimed “universal health care.”

I would encourage you to add Roth’s blog to your reading list; if more people thought like Roth does the world would be a considerably more rational place.

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  1. frankenduf says:

    nah, life insurance is still pretty repugnant- i mean, who actually uses it, except for people that murder their spouse?

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  2. John says:

    The idea that we can isolate repugnance or its opposite from “efficiency” or “political expediency” is clearly wrong on its face. So much for making the world a “more rational place”!

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  3. Truthseeker1 says:

    Others are small businesses and grandparenting.

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  4. Cambot says:

    Very interesting. Please fix the link to “Onetime Repugnancies”. I am curious to learn more about this.

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  5. Bob Brown says:

    Lobbyists and special interests will usual prevail over rational thinking.

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  6. Susan says:

    All our choices are so colored by morals and emotion, that I think it would be difficult to find transactions that are promoted purely for efficiency or political expediency.

    If subsidizing small farms is on the list, then subsidizing megafarms should also be on the list.

    How do you separate someone’s definition of efficiency from their definition of political efficiency. Not clear what kind of test this is…

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  7. Robert says:

    In the absence of regulation, my bet is life insurance would still be repugnant in the extreme.

    Just look at the Credit Default Swap to see insurance in the raw.

    And while repugnance may be more arbitrary or less, rational thinking does not constitute the reason for anything.

    Of those who favor rationality as the basis for all human activity, I am forced to conclude that it is the rationalization of their various and dubious enthusiasms that they wish to see validated.

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  8. Giglia says:

    nah, life insurance is still pretty repugnant- i mean, who actually uses it, except for people that murder their spouse?

    — frankenduf

    Except for the Life Insurance or mom and dad….so if one passes away…the remaining partner will be able to continue to raise the kids…rather than be put out of your home…

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