Splashed across the front pages today — well, at least one paper I saw — are headlines about the EPA
slashing the value of life revising the value of a statistical life downward. This is highly newsworthy, but only because most people haven't been paying attention to economics or regulatory policy. (One can't really blame them . . .)
There are two things that make the news juicy: the fact that regulators are placing a value on life, and the fact that they're revising the value down.
Most people don't know that you can put a value on human life. Most people don't know that they put a value on their own lives all day every day. The slogans that we grow up with - "life is precious" - dominate their thinking. Our parents value our lives very highly and teach us to at least talk about the value of life in exaggerated terms.
This kind of talk and thinking isn't universal, of course — in our culture and others, sacrificing one's life for a high ideal is well regarded, as is sacrificing one's life for science, or for fun. That said, being cavalier or anti-life is generally not a good idea. No, there's some balance between prizing life and prizing fun, the greater good, ideology, religion, or what-have-you.
We do strike those balances every day. When we go to cross the street, we make judgments about the threat to our life and health from oncoming cars and decide whether to cross in the middle of the block, at a cross-walk, at a controlled intersection, or at a pedestrian footbridge. Most of us have had occassion at least once to think about crossing a freeway — and we haven't done it.
All this is because we are weighing the value of getting to the other side against the risk of costing ourselves our own lives. To articulate this balancing, what economists are doing is using a dollar value to measure the relative importance of life versus other things.
Think about the alternative: What if you had no way of balancing the value of life against the value of going to the movie theater? People might step into six lanes of onrushing traffic just to be first in the popcorn line. People might cower at the side of an empty two-lane road, passing up a small-town-theater showing of Fun in Acacpulco for fear of setting foot on macadam where a car tire has been. You've got to have some measure of the value of life, and you've got to use it.
Now, what about the second issue: revising the value of life downward? Under the "life is precious" presumption, that sounds horrible. It should always be revised upwards, right? Well, guess what. If you do, you're gonna miss the movie.
If you value life too highly, you will take steps to protect life and health that undermine the value of living. Why is life "precious"? Some say for it's own sake. But most people believe it's because of the wonderful range of experiences, adventures, tastes, emotions, and relationships we get to enjoy in life. The freedom. If we give up too much of that, focusing strictly on keeping our hearts pumping and air flowing in and out of the lungs, we've lost track of the reason for living. Simply maintaining bodies in a state of sentience is not what it's all about. So regulatory policy must do what we must do as individuals: strike a balance between life and living. Fall too far out of balance in either direction and you're either prematurely dead or living a life without meaning.
I know nothing about the methodology that the EPA is using to calculate the value of a human life. They came up with $6.9 million. Frankly, that sounds fair to me. (So would $10.2 million, though, or $5.5 million.) There is one problem with it, though. It's not the value I place on my life. It's their estimate of the average value that the average American places on his life. Coming up with a single number is a gross collective judgment about how much risk and how much safety each of us should have. It's incredibly dehumanizing to be lumped together with everyone else this way.
If you disagree with placing a dollar value on human life, well, you disagree with the idea of describing human action in a standardized way. You might as well disagree with giving names to colors.
But if you disagree with the value the EPA is placing on human life, there might be something to that. The regulatory process makes a huge collective judgments about the value of life, lumping us all together into one big average.
We should be as free as possible to make our own judgments about risk and the value of life. It's difficult with things like air pollution, but even those kinds of risks can often be controlled through individual judgments.
Whatever the case, get over your concerns about placing a dollar value on human life. And revising the value down? — that's a good thing. It means that we get to have more freedom and more fun!