Reflections on the Economic Value of Life – The Property Chronicle
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Reflections on the Economic Value of Life

The Economist

For most of human history matters of life and death lay almost entirely outside the material world. Saving a life at any cost feels to most of us like a moral imperative, but the astonishing leaps forward in science and technology that define the modern world push our values to their breaking point.

Modern medicine along with its incalculable benefits also raised end-of-life questions our ancestors never had to ask. If the difference between dying at 90 or 95 is a life savings that could be left to one’s children, do we spend it? Until recently these questions weren’t even acknowledged in polite company. This is a case of technology evolving faster than our cultural values. Catching up only happens through many people honestly struggling with difficult questions.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents us with this kind of choice but on a global scale. The ability to forecast a pandemic and the institutions capable of a coordinated response are things we still struggle to understand scientifically. But that newness also raises moral questions we find deeply uncomfortable to face.

Spend more, sacrifice more, disrupt and damage society more, and save more lives. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said any efforts at shutdown and distancing were worth it to save just one life, it came from a place of human decency. Suggesting otherwise is chastised as putting the economy ahead of human lives.

Adam Smith taught us that moral sentiments emerge from the bottom up rather than being handed down from on high. Were the questions raised by our response to COVID-19 an aberration, we might not need to ask as many hard questions. But the truth is these questions are all around us and honestly recognizing them is uncomfortable but overdue. 

The Movie That Won’t Stop Playing

Consider the following debate:

The Economist

About Max Gulker

Max Gulker is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2015. His research focuses on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looks at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets.

Articles by Max Gulker

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