A repugnant transaction is an economic term that describes an exchange between people that is generally perceived as morally or ethically wrong. These transactions fall outside of regular market mechanisms, hence the term repugnant markets. The repugnant nature of these transactions, cause these markets to be structurally inefficient.
Examples of Repugnant Markets
- Organ transplants
- Child surrogacy
- Recreational drugs
Whether a market is considered socially repugnant in not a binary definition. At the same time, what people consider to be a repugnant transaction can change over time and across cultures. Some transactions that are considered repugnant, are also illegal. Some are not.
When you think about markets, the first examples that come to mind will be something like stock exchanges, farmers markets or auctions. In all these examples, the transaction is impersonal. If you want to buy a stock on the New Youk Stock Exchange, you simply need to place an order through a stockbroker. In fact, anybody can place a bid.
Many markets are, however, personal. These markets are called matching markets. In order for a transaction to take place, a buyer and a seller need to be matched. A good example of this is the labour market. If you are in the labour market, you can’t simply choose a job. You need to match with an employer who is looking for someone who matches your skillset.
In a matching market, price is not the only mechanism. For a matching market to be repugnant, it means that other people feel that it should not be allowed to engage in the desired transaction.
Alvin Ross, the economist who coined the phrase, formulated the concept of repugnant transactions when studying kidney transplants. It is against the law almost anywhere in the world, to buy and sell kidneys for transplantation. Yet there is a black market for kidneys, which means that there are instances where individuals are willing to transact in kidneys, while people, in general, feel that it is immoral to do so.
Alvin Roth on Repugnant Markets and Forbidden Transactions
In the following lecture, Nobel laureate Alvin E. Roth will investigate the nature of and reasons for repugnance with its implications for the design of markets. Why is it forbidden to sell and buy organs? Why is the exchange of kidneys that leads to many successful transplants allowed in some countries such as the US, but not in others like Germany? Which markets or transactions we allow, affects the choices that people have?
Watch the lecture and learn more: