The Price of Life

A reminder that a certain level of arbitrariness invariably creeps into any cost-benefit calculus comes from Binyamin Applebaum’s article on how Obama-era regulatory agencies tend to value life more than did its Bush-era predecessors (also a reminder that partisan control of the White House matters in a lot of below-the-radar ways). The interesting thing is that the US government as a whole doesn’t have a consistent line on this:

The Environmental Protection Agency set the value of a life at $9.1 million last year in proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. The agency used numbers as low as $6.8 million during the George W. Bush administration. The Food and Drug Administration declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2008, in proposing warning labels on cigarette packages featuring images of cancer victims. The Transportation Department has used values of around $6 million to justify several recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars.

The gap between the EPA and the DOT is downright gigantic. It amounts to running a buy two get one free sale on human life in transportation-related mishaps. Meanwhile, I would say the case that we’re overemphasizing terrorism as a problem is basically sealed by the fact that “A report last year financed by the Department of Homeland Security suggested that the value of preventing deaths from terrorism might be 100 percent higher than other deaths.” We should not let 1,000 people die in car accidents or of pollution-related illness in order to prevent a terrorism from killing ten people somewhere. Violent murder is awful, and we should try to stop it, but having your husband die in a construction mishap or your wife be killed a drunk driver is also awful.

Meanwhile note that while there certainly are misguided regulations in this country, it’s not like what the business community wants is to rescind a couple dumb rules and streamline things. They’re very upset about the higher valuation of human life, because their goal is to maximize profit by any means necessary up to and including getting people killed.