Economists value life more than you do

Bryan Caplan’s 20 Jan­u­ary post at Econ­Log presents an inter­est­ing ques­tion of the sort that is often over­heard at par­ties and cof­fee­hous­es as an exam­ple of a ques­tion that ought not be asked. How do you put a val­ue on a human life?

The ques­tion comes up after some judge or jury awards dam­ages in a wrong­ful death suit, or some news item in nature both lurid and legal­is­tic. Usu­al­ly the dis­cus­sion nev­er gets past the notion that life is price­less. This is undoubt­ed­ly true from the per­spec­tive of per­son whose life we are talk­ing about. If mon­ey can­not be brought to some after­life, there is no non-sec­ondary ben­e­fit that can be said to bring prof­it to that individual.

Yet peo­ple com­mon­ly sell slices of their lives, giv­ing eight or ten or more hours of each of their days — time which can­not be returned or re-earned. Our life­times are finite resources in ways that no oth­er known resources could ever be. Nev­er­the­less those life­times are kept from being short­ened by procur­ing the resources need­ed to main­tain and sus­tain them. And the lives of oth­ers are worth less to each of us than they are to those oth­ers. This is the deal we make in employ­ment: one trades hours of life now for the abil­i­ty to main­tain life into the future. At least until we learn to pho­to­syn­the­size, this is the fact of life: we can­not sus­tain our­selves with­out direct­ly rely­ing on the boun­ty of nature or trad­ing with oth­ers for the prod­ucts of the boun­ty of nature.

(Of course, in prac­ti­cal terms no one trades time — they trade labor which takes time. I will still argue that it is time which is ulti­mate­ly trad­ed as each per­son has the poten­tial to freely labor for their own plea­sure or bet­ter­ment, and that labor takes time. There­fore the ques­tion is who gets the fruits of the time spent and who gets con­trol over the means of that time spent. The util­i­ty is the work; the com­mod­i­ty is the time.)

Hav­ing then estab­lished that por­tions of a life can be (and com­mon­ly are) trad­ed for dol­lars or oth­er units of cur­ren­cy it should be clear that, at least in the mar­ket exter­nal to the indi­vid­ual, there is a val­ue which can be attrib­uted to the life.

So who would you think assigns a high­er val­ue to a human life: the peo­ple who «cheap­en» life by assign­ing a val­ue to it, or those who do so only grudgingly?

I’ll let you read the arti­cle. Spoil­er: the econ­o­mists do.

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