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.


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


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"!


Others are small businesses and grandparenting.


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

Bob Brown

Lobbyists and special interests will usual prevail over rational thinking.


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...


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.


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 if one passes away...the remaining partner will be able to continue to raise the kids...rather than be put out of your home...


It seems that there's a disconnect between "efficiency" and "utility" here, especially on the part of his readers, which is not surprising given the single-minded fascination with efficiency that some have.


Making a military invasion aimed at "bringing democracy, US style" to a foreign country.

christy nelson

Grand-parenting is inefficient? It is often an economic necessity, especially nowadays. More importantly, in the long, long run, it is a genetic imperative. The grandparent(s) may not think about it this way, but it may be the only way to ensure their genetic success.


Take one of your first examples: home ownership. It was supposed to promote neighborhoods that took care of themselves. Now, it promotes unemployment, as homeowners, their mortgages underwater, cannot pursue jobs elsewhere.

I am not the first to say, "" be careful what you wish for""


While repugnance and anti-repugnance are real , we should be very careful at labeling these irrational. Irrationality, really, is inconsistency among a person's values or goals, or a choice of means that is ineffective in satisfying these goals.
Economists often get so consumed with thinking about "efficiency", that they often forget that efficiency is a meaningless goal: It is only a criterion by which we evaluate the means we use to satisfy our goals.
In this way, universal health care is a way to satisfy the value "Every human being in the U.S. should be able to see a doctor when they need to". This value is costly but defensible, and if people realize and are willing to bear the cost, the labeling them irrational will be unfair, and "ineffective" at changing their views.
This is a comment about economists in general, not about Al Roth or the authors of this post.


"Home ownership in the U.S." is promoted for some reason other than political expediency? Please.


My biggest one is tipping. There are certain tangible benefits, like if you are a repeat customer of a restaurant / hairdresser / limo service, but many if not most of my tips go to people I will never see again. Tips are also confusingly given after the service has been rendered, meaning that a good tip or bad tip cannot improve the service. And while there may be no direct benefit, the rational consumer freely tips or is literally shamed by his peers for not doing so. It's the strangest transaction in the whole economy, and to my mind, the US is more strict about it than anywhere in the world.

thomas bishop

repugnance and attraction, as you suggest, are influenced by culture and the country where you reside. And as you further state, culture is a function of time. The question become which behaviors are universally repugnant/attractive across space and time and which are not. Why is polygamous marriage, gun ownership, or manual labor by individuals for commercial gain attractive or accepted in some social circles, but not others? Some items on the list can vary, or not; the more interesting question is why.


I would disagree that suggestion that universal health care is a proposal that is the opposite of repugnant. One can argue for universal health care on the grounds that it's the most efficient method of providing a certain level of population health.


I seem to recall reading once that rent-a-cars were considered shameful or embarrassing when they were first introduced. Renting a car indicated that a person wasn't affluent enough to own their own car.