Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Government panel can't put a price on human life

Houston Chronicle viewpoint "Government panel can't put a price on human life" (November 24th, 2009), while titularly correct, fails to realize that human life always has a price, whether the government explicitly acknowledges it or not.

If cost-benefit becomes a primary objective in government-run health care, then government would be in the business of putting a market value on human life, no different than a property appraiser values a home. We know Americans do not want this type of rationing, which would deprive our citizens of life-saving screenings just because they might not be worth the cost on the front end. You can't put a price on human life. [Emphasis added].


We must reduce the costs of health care, but we should instead embrace a number of initiatives, such as electronic medical records, civil justice reform, insurance reform and disease prevention. One thing we can never mark down is the price of human life. It is absolutely priceless.

The fact of the matter is that everyone, including the government, puts a price on human life.  We all price human life--even our own lives--every time that we participate in a life-risking activity. In fact, anytime a person acts to change the inputs in the valuation of others, he provides economists with his shadow price for the lives of others (like deciding to drive 5 mph faster, so deciding to risk one more life per million, in order to clock-in a moment sooner at work).

Perhaps the point of the article is that the government should not put a price on human life, though we ourselves may. While a reasonable position, even then we must realize that at minimum, the government must make cost/benefit calculations about the value of human life in military affairs. It would be very astonishing indeed to find out that the government decided to invest all of tax-payers' money in arming the troops. At some point, we must decide when additional military spending is no longer worth spending. So long as we have government that spends money, it must have an implicit valuation of human life.

Maybe, though, the government doesn't extend such valuations to the civilian sector?  Of course not.  It seems, for example, that mandatory seat belt use laws cost $69 per life saved, while the introduction of an airbag saves $120,000 per life saved, and requiring back center seat belts save one life ever $360,000 spent because of the regulation. Finally, sickle cell screening for non-Black low risk newborns would cost $34,000,000,000 per life saved. Should the government mandate sickle cell screening?

Then perhaps it's the argument that government should never make an explicit valuation of human life. Let's say we get a moral benefit from having government that does not put an explicit value on human life. Even then, the moral benefit we gain might be able to be priced out. Would we be willing to put an explicit value on human life in order to save one hundred thousand lives? One million? Even the government's putting an explicit price on lives has its own value.

The article's proper phrase might be: the price of the government putting an explicit price on lives is too high. While we certainly may agree that the government has no place in healthcare or in setting prices on human lives in that respect, it is important to remember that the cost of the government not putting an explicit price in any realm will be inefficiency.  In this setting, inefficiency translates to a higher death toll.  Ideally, the government would discover an efficient price of life, and would prevent millions of deaths.  The real phrase for the article should have been: Prices are not the problem here, government is.

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