When thinking through the wisdom of COVID-19 lockdowns and orders, commentators often compare the value of lives saved against some loss of economic output (GDP) to determine whether the measure was cost‐effective. But this is an apples vs. oranges comparison.
The value of a statistical life is some calculation of what the average U.S. citizen is willing to pay for a reduction in their probability of dying. Suppose I’m willing to pay $20,000 to avoid a 0.2 percent chance of death. The value of a statistical life for me is thus $20,000/0.2 percent = $10 million per statistical life saved. If this number were applied across the population, then a measure that prevented 500,000 deaths would create $5 trillion in value.
But note carefully what this represents: it’s not about output or spending. The value we place on our lives through our choices represents our expectation of the pleasure we’d get from a full spectrum of things we’d miss if we died. Not just the consumption we’d forgo, in other words, but the value we place on time with friends and family, travel experiences, enjoying all the new non‐market leisure activities we can engage in, and more. The value of a statistical life used to calculate a dollar measure of the value of lives saved in a lockdown is therefore an economic welfare measure, not a GDP measure.
So the correct comparison when weighing up the wisdom of a lockdown is not “GDP lost” but “economic welfare lost.” That means we must account for the value of our lost liberties from shutdowns, stay‐at‐home orders, and closure of non‐essential businesses. As British economist Andrew Lilico has said, that includes “the cost of lost enjoyment, lost advance in our skills, lost spiritual development, lost self‐expression, delayed marriages, missing of windows of opportunity to ever have a baby, missing the chance to sit at the bedside of a loved one dying of cancer,” and much more besides. These non‐market losses mean the loss of economic welfare from lockdowns is much greater than observed losses to GDP.
One of my friends has had to cancel his bachelor party as a result of the lockdowns; another probably won’t now have her ill Dad around to give her away at her wedding; some students are missing out on lessons that might permanently impair their understanding for life. It should be obvious these losses are greater than any hit to consumption or earning potential. My guess is that many of you at home feel like your evening time is worth less without the option of doing something different. You valued that option even if you wouldn’t act on it. In economic terms, Casey Mulligan writes about all this as a loss in the productivity of leisure time.
Now, accounting for this lost value accurately is difficult. Especially because, even if governments lifted lockdowns, many of us would likely continue to curb our own non‐market activities to avoid the risk of infection or spreading the virus to loved ones. The problem is in large part the virus, not just the policy response. In normal times too, libertarians would balk at the idea you could “aggregate” in some way these very personal valuations of liberties. And, just so my views are not misrepresented, I am not saying that trying to account for them necessarily changes the calculus to what is optimal policy either way.
When thinking through how much pain we are willing to incur to save lives though, it’s essential that we do not place an implicit value of zero on our personal, non‐market freedoms. The value of lives saved accounts for our ability to live those lives. Cost estimates of lockdowns should account for the value of our restricted liberties too.