Everyday Economics

$10 a Foot

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

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Paul “Freck” Morgan insists it’s not a hoax: On Jan. 5, 2002, live on the Internet, he’ll cut off his feet with a guillotine. For $20, you can watch.

Freck, whose nickname recalls his childhood freckles (“the freckles went away but the nickname stuck”), says his goal is to raise enough money to buy prosthetic feet. His own feet haven’t worked since they were run over by a trailer 15 years ago, when Freck was 18. With newly available prosthetics, he expects to be able to run again.

Here’s what you get for your $20: For several days prior to Jan. 5, you can watch via Web cam while Freck builds his guillotine. Then, on the big day itself there will be an hourlong professionally produced Web extravaganza complete with prepackaged interviews, online polling, and of course the big event. Freck will sever his feet at the ankle (he has no feeling from the ankles down), bleed for a while, and cauterize the wounds.

To wear the prosthetics, he’ll actually need to have his legs amputated closer to the knee—where he still has some feeling. That will be done afterward at a hospital, assuming he raises enough money to be able to afford the surgery.

Freck says he’s had relatively little trouble with law enforcement—local authorities have asked him where he plans to set up his guillotine, he’s declined to answer, and they haven’t pressed the matter. The police have indicated that if they knew the location, they might try to shut it down under Mississippi’s “mayhem law,” but they haven’t threatened to arrest anybody.

Is it for real? Of course we have no way of knowing until Jan. 5 comes and goes—and in fact, the big event has already been postponed twice (as of this writing, Freck’s Web site still advertises a date of Nov. 30). Freck says that’s because his conception has become increasingly elaborate: The professional producer and director, audio support, and so on have all been added in the past three weeks. If it’s a hoax, I’m at least reasonably certain that it’s not a hoax of the take-the-money-and-run variety, not just because you can’t run without feet but because Freck’s too easy to find. I had no problem reaching him at his home phone number, which I got using standard tools on the Internet. (Earlier attempts to reach him by e-mail went unanswered.)

So far, Freck hasn’t got many takers, but based on typical pay-per-view patterns, he’s expecting a last-minute rush. Where will those viewers come from? Aside from what he calls “a few freaky bloodlust types,” Freck anticipates that the majority will be “just very curious”—with their curiosity, of course, aroused by Freck himself. There’s no ready pool of customers already shopping for the best price on a foot amputation Webcast. Instead, in the time-honored tradition of the entrepreneur, Freck is trying to create a need and then fill it.

Whether or not he goes through with it, how should we feel about Freck’s brand of entrepreneurial capitalism? Are we witnessing a triumph or a travesty of the free market? More concretely, should he be allowed to do it?

The usual defense of free markets is that everyone’s preferences get accounted for because everyone’s dollars are valuable. Nobody tears down a movie theater or builds a supermarket without explicitly accounting for profits and therefore implicitly accounting for the desires of moviegoers and grocery shoppers. Restaurant owners set smoking policies by weighing the preferences of their smoking and nonsmoking customers. Therefore we don’t need zoning laws that favor grocery stores over movie theaters, and we don’t need laws that regulate smoking in restaurants.

But that argument breaks down in a case like this. Freck and his customers are voluntary participants, but according to my informal survey, there are a lot of other people who are vaguely disturbed by the whole business and have no way to make their voices heard. In principle, those people could band together and pay Freck to reconsider, but aside from all the practical difficulties involved, they’d risk inspiring a dozen imitators to threaten even more gruesome self-amputations unless they got paid off as well.

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.