He's amputating his feet for a Web pay-per-view?!

How the dismal science applies to your life.
Nov. 26 2001 2:40 PM

$10 a Foot

Should we stop Paul Morgan from amputating his feet on the Web?

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So, this looks like what economists call a market failure—a case where some people's preferences get ignored. And technically, I suppose it is a market failure. But it's not a market failure that concerns me. That's because I'm OK with ignoring the preferences of busybodies.

Now, the standard doctrine of economics is that we don't judge people's preferences; we take preferences as given and whatever they are, we treat them with respect. By that doctrine, a busybody's preferences should count just as much as anyone else's. But I am inclined to deviate from that doctrine for two reasons. First, we can't account for a preference if we don't know how strong it is. Busybodies can be very vocal, but as long as complaining is free, the volume of a complaint is a poor measure of how much the complainer really cares. Second, I am inclined to believe that it's relatively easy to train oneself into or out of busybodyism, so that by catering to busybodies we will only spawn more of them.

Therefore I'm inclined to ignore the concerns of those who are vaguely uncomfortable about Freck's initiative, just as I'm inclined to ignore the concerns of those who are vaguely uncomfortable about the market in healthy kidneys or about drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There will always be things that discomfort us. The best thing we can do is get over it.

Steven E. Landsburg is the author, most recently, ofMore Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. You can e-mail him at armchair@landsburg.com.