The Value of a Life

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were initiated by the events of September 11, 2001.  The attacks of that day killed almost 3000 people.  The total cost of the wars to date is estimated at $1.38 trillion.  Assuming that the wars were fought to avenge the deaths or to prevent a similar loss of life in the future, that is an expenditure of $460 million per life.

Is a human life worth that much?  We think of life as priceless, but we can tell how much one is worth by examining the amount we are willing to spend to save a life.  Here are a couple examples of how we value human life:

Health insurance policies commonly cap the lifetime benefit that they will pay.  A common cap amount is $1 million.  At least, this was common until Obamacare.  As of September 23rd, 2010, insurers may no longer set such a cap.  But before that, $1 million dollars was a common figure.  You can’t get much more at the heart of the issue of what a human life is worth than to say to someone “Sorry, we’ve spent a million on you, your life isn’t worth any more than that.”

Environmental, health and safety regulation is often required by law to take costs and benefits into account.  In order to do this in terms of life-saving regulations such as limiting the amount of mercury in the air or making cars safer, a value must be placed on human life to test if the cost of the proposed regulation is justified by its benefit.  That amount is commonly set at around $6 million.

These figures are American ones.  They may vary somewhat in other first world countries.  But they will vary widely in third world countries.  One of the saddest aspects of world travel is seeing the effects of the lower economic value of human life in other countries.  The movie Slumdog Millionaire showed some of the horrible effects of the low value of human life when it portrayed orphaned children being mutilated to increase their income as beggars.

But to return to the first world, it is well established in most contexts where the subject is directly addressed, that a human life is worth somewhere in the range $1-10 million.  But what about contexts where it isn’t directly addressed, but is only indirectly inferred?  The cost of our recent wars is one example where we seem to have unwittingly spent somewhere on the order of $460 million per life to prevent future terrorism.  Does this make sense?  Previous wars were fought to preserve world order or to stop regimes killing millions.  These seemed worth the cost to most people.  But who can say that $460 million per life is worth the cost?  Imagine what could be done with that much money in other contexts, such as health care, education, safety, etc.

If most of us can agree that $460 million per life is too much, we also know that sometimes value human life far too little.  There are hundreds of unsolved murders in the typical big city each year, and I’m sure there would be a lot fewer if each case had a team of 10 investigators working for a year on it, which would “only” cost about $1 million.  It seems reasonable to assume that in most unsolved murders, the murderer could strike again at least once, so the question is, how much are we willing to spend to prevent another death?

How much is spent to prevent the drunk driving deaths?  There were around 10,000 people killed last year in the US in drunk driving crashes.  If we spent $1 million per crash to try to prevent them, that would be a budget of $10 billion dollars per year to prevent drunk driving, which is far more than we actually spend.

What about accidents in general?  Seven tenths of all deaths due to injuries are accidental, while the rest are due to wars and other violence, as seen in this very interesting table.  Do we spend as much preventing accidents as we do fighting crime and preventing war?  And more than half of all intentional deaths are due to suicide.  Imagine if we spent as much preventing suicide as we do on armies and police.  (What would we spend the money on if we did?  Should we pay people not to kill themselves?)

Of course, in the end, human life in priceless.  It’s value is infinite.  But it’s not $460 million.

One thought on “The Value of a Life

  1. I think part of the problem is that the war ends up killing other people, to avenge those it was originally started for. So then you have a catch-22. Do you place the same value on all human life? If so, you’d never be rich enough if wars keep on killing people as a byproduct of people getting killed.

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