The Future of Repugnance

Al Roth, whom we’ve blogged about in the past, is known (to me, at least) as the King of Repugnance.

Not that Roth is himself in any way repugnant (quite the opposite), but he is masterful at  thinking about the kind of transactions that we find morally or ethically or otherwise disturbing and how the trends of repugnance shift over time.

For a forthcoming book anthology called In 100 Years (inspired, Roth tells us, by a 1930 essay by Keynes called “Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren"), Roth has written an essay (PDF here) about the future of repugnance:

“To summarize the predictions I’ve made here about 100 years from now, I think that the trend of increasing prosperity will continue, but that it will not necessarily (as Keynes predicted in 1930) bring us all lives of leisure.  Many will work harder than ever, and some of the things some of us will do to work more efficiently — like taking performance enhancing drugs — will go from being repugnant today to ordinary in the future. Other things we do eagerly today, like use computers for access to more and more data, may become repugnant in some respects, as privacy of personal data moves to the forefront of civil rights issues. And while medical advances will continue on all fronts, and advances in preventive medicine will make medical care and long-lived good health more widely available, some kinds of medicine, including reproductive medicine along with other aspects of reproduction, will become commoditized, while others, such as genetic manipulation of various sorts, may become repugnant. Some kinds of education will become commoditized, but among the matching markets that we see today, selective admissions to elite universities will remain, as will networking and matchmaking for family formation (under a wider variety of marital forms) and perhaps increasingly, for research collaborators and other kinds of business partners.  And there will still be economists, and economic mysteries to unravel, including those that will arise from the increased computerization of markets and marketplaces. Much of market design that we struggle to understand today will have become commoditized and be found in off the shelf software, but understanding how to design novel markets and fix market failures will remain an active concern of our economist grandchildren.

Which of Roth’s predictions do you find most outlandish?


Guess I must be a time traveller, 'cause I seem to have 22nd century ethics to go along with my 17th century musical taste. I find nothing the least bit repugnant about performance-enhancing drugs - indeed, I'm enjoying a cup as I type this - but strongly object to the way my personal data is allowed to float around the internet.


"genetic manipulation... may become repugnant"- i think he has this reversed- that it IS repugnant now, but may become less so in the future (Orwell notwithstanding!?)

Charlie Brashears

I think the most disturbing is match making as a commodity which suggest a market. With a market comes market analysis and people start raising their children according to what analysts values. It sounds like a market driven type of eugenics.


The market for eugenics already exists. Parents and guardians get their kids into the right schools. Kids freeze out the wrong kids from sitting at their lunch table. And of course the most elemental eugenics I can think of: the drama and comedy of mate selection.


I wonder how the concept of repugnance in relation to American government will change. I'm guessing that Americans will become less concerned with the private sex lives of their representatives like many European voters- will this be a trend around the world? Will Americans become okay with using the world "socialized" when it comes to education, healthcare etc. or will socialism continue to be a bad word?

I also wonder if the idea of letting human beings sleep on the streets, succumb to mental illnesses without support systems, battle drug addictions without the resources to overcome them, or garner crushing amounts of debt because of life-threatening illnesses will be seen as repugnant in the decades to come. I certainly hope so.

Charles L.

It seems these things cycle. Many Americans were less concerned with such scandals previously (remember Ronald Reagan?), but a philandering Atheist could never be elected president these days. Even in Europe, France no less, the death of Strauss-Kahn's political ambitions at the hands of a sex scandal suggests that perhaps Europeans are starting to care more. They've also moved more to the right as of late.

I would think that eventually people will stop caring about individuals and vote blindly along party lines (to a greater extent than they do currently). Ads will pepper us with all sorts of slanderous and untrue accusations against a candidate that the majority of us will be too disgusted to vote, except the party faithful and whatnot. Attack ads have grown in number exponentially as of late, and there is no reason to thing they will stop coming.

Shane L

However the Strauss-Kahn scandal involved alleged RAPE, not just adultery. France, meanwhile, has already voted a left-leaning government back into power, so I don't see a clear shift.


We need to take responsibility for ourselves. Not to blame or prognosticate or look for someone else to give us a solution.

The "first government is the self."


As alluded by James, there's nothing in Roth's predictions that isn't a standard liberal norm today. It reads like day-old coffee, and yet the 100 year time frame ought to bring us a very foreign stimulant.

Just to take one example, civil rights advocates make a lot of noise about future privacy concerns, but more and more people are freely sharing their personal information today. What will reverse that trend? Apologies since I haven't read Roth's book, but why won't the freely sharing public determine our cultural direction rather than the principled few?


So we are to define "civil rights" as being required to do whatever the majority wants to do?


"We" don't get to define civil rights issues - they are what they are, as the culture evolves; but hardly ever a majority view until the storm passes, so to speak.

Today it's gay rights and privacy rights; yesterday it was women's rights, and the day before it was racial rights (not that any of those rights have been vindicated). Tomorrow it will be what it will be, but I don't see any reason to presume that a society that's been generally adjusting to a massive adoption of Facebook, among other things, is going to care more about privacy in the future.

The Creepy Future

In the future you'll be able to virtually have sex with anyone you like -for a fee of course. You'll be able to scan an image into a device and it will create a virtual version of the person you want to have sex with. Brain manipulation will make it feel real. Celebrities will sell their likeness to sex programs. Marriage rates will plummet, but so too will divorces per marriage as infidelity decreases. And new 12-step programs will be invented.


I want to give this comment a thumbs up because I think the commenter is right. I also want to give it a thumbs down because I fear the commenter is right.

I'd also like to add that I think the first ones of these produced will be done using porn stars and this will revitalize that industry for a short time. Shortly after that someone in the industry will add the likeness of his/her favorite non-porn celebrity to an already created program and soon that will get out into the wild and become the first fake sex-program of a non-porn industry celebrity. More will follow and there will be a market for them no matter how obviously fake they are. Some of these will be just as fake as a badly photoshopped celebrity nude is today. Some will be so good that no one can tell if they were produced from real images of the celebrity or created with the cooperation of the celebrity. You will know that this fake sex-program production industry is very well established when you see the first celebrity deny absolutely that a program which is purported to be him/her is in any way developed from authentic sex tapes or nude imagery of him/her but then is caught out as having cooperated in the creation of, been video'd for, or even instigated the creation of such a program all for personal financial gain or to generate publicity.

It's a sordid world we live in and some people will do anything to get what they want.


Ken Arromdee

Performance enhancing drugs inevitably have side effects that harm the user. Allowing performance enhancing drugs in competitions results in a race to the bottom where everyone takes the drug, and suffers the side effect, but the outcome of the competition is the same.

Allowing performance enhancing drugs in work has different problems. While people are sometimes harmed in the course of doing their jobs, we generally consider this to be a bad thing and try to minimize it. A performance enhancing drug is sort of like a 14 hour work day--it increases productivity per worker, but with a cost.

There's also the problem that employers are notoriously bad at measuring performance and often mistreat workers to get immediate results even if it both harms the worker and reduces longterm productivity. (The market won't fix this because on the timescale it takes for such a company to fail, there's a steady supply of new lousy managers at new companies to replace them. Of course, they'll eventually fail too, but it's a steady state.)



My prediction is that forms of government that are not western-style democracy will become less repugnant. Right now, any form of government that is not representative democracy is opposed by all conventionally thinking people. I expect that to change.

Some Reasons:
(1) The success of nations like China and Singapore that are not democracies show that rule of law is paramount to success.
(2) The rise of illiberal democracies across the Middle East shows that democracy can sometimes be a destroyer of freedom (e.g. women's rights, religious freedom, freedom of thought: the basics that we take for granted).
(3) Economic success stems from potection of property rights, but property rights can be threatened when much of the voting public is unsuccessful in a globalized world.


I would guess that the happy multicultural consensus that all cultures and viewpoints are equal will be in shredded beyond recognition in 100 years time.