Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The value of human life as a luxury good.

Back during the Wimbledon tennis tournament there were protests against the organizers' killing the pigeons that were disrupting the tournament, leading Don Boudreaux to observe....

That ordinary people are sufficiently and securely fed, clothed, shod, and sheltered to enable some of them to devote substantial stores of their emotional energies to the care of pigeons is a sure sign of deep and widespread prosperity.
Megan McArdle followed with a post on "morality as a luxury good" -- veganism, cruelty to the fox in the fox hunt and the like arising as moral issues only as societies gain unprecedented wealth.

That "environmentalism is a luxury good" is well known in both economics (.pdf) and politics. (If to get calories for yourself and your family you must burn down part of a rainforest, you will. If you can get more calories cheaper at a supermarket you'll do that instead -- then be free to value the wonders of the rain forest, and maybe even work for legislation protecting them.)

But maybe the most impressive thing along these lines is the rise in the value of human life in wealthy societies.

To see very clearly the growing value that governments, taxpayers and voting citizens place on human life today in money terms, look at the huge sums the military spends on equipment to reduce combat casualties ... plus the amounts it spends on rapid full medical care for every casualty possible ... plus amounts spent on rescue missions for even single individuals (such as downed flyers) behind enemy lines, etc. All of which reflects the public's intolerance of casualties -- and high and increasing money value it places on life.

Compare that to say, World War I. At Verdun there were a million casualties, half fatalities, for a military result of near nothing. In only one battle. From there the war just went on. A few months later at the Somme there were another 1.2 million. From there the war just went on ... That was only 90-odd years ago.

Can anyone imagine fighting a war like that, with such casualties, today?

Today, when a single soldier is killed in combat, it is major media market news complete with the story of how he had enlisted to help his mother pay the mortgage on the family home, literally.

Admittedly, this increase in the value we give to human life is mostly regarding our own lives. (And not all of them). And as would be expected from the "luxury good" principle, less-developed societies place less value on life than we do. (The Iran - Iraq war of 1980-1988 caused perhaps a million or more deaths, though still many fewer relative to the size of the nation combatants than did World War I). This could be a source of miscalculations in future conflicts among societies.

But for the most part, we should all be very happy indeed to be living in a society where the value of life has appreciated so greatly over a mere hundred years.

For the record, the Environmental Protection Agency today values a human life a $6.9 million, as noted here previously. With a U.S. population of 305 million, that means we are all of us together worth about ... um... carry those zeros ... $2,104.5 trillion. And going up!