Contrary to the cliché, “... human life is priceless,” people constantly assign prices to their own lives and those of others by pursuing relatively dangerous activities. Here are a few examples.
If you fail to buckle-up, you (subconsciously) weigh the inconvenience of a seat belt against a higher probability of death or injury, implicitly assigning prices to your life and body parts. And parents assign prices for their children when they fail to immunize them. Hitchhiking, skydiving, or merely taking a walk all involve risks that implicitly assign prices to life.
High medical costs cause some people to forgo treatment that would prolong their lives or the lives of seriously ill relatives.
A few dollars each could save children from starvation in famine-plagued countries.
Major wars of any duration are usually fought with draftees, whose lives are implicitly priced by politicians and military strategists.
We could cut murder rates by surer and swifter law enforcement, but reforming or expanding our police forces, the judicial system, and prisons seems too costly.
Paid killers' fees range from $200 to $500,000.
After adjusting for training and the pleasantness of working conditions, higher wages are paid for riskier jobs. Numerous studies conclude that, in the United States, an annual wage premium of about $4,200 is paid for each additional 0.1% probability of dying on the job. This translates into roughly $4.2 million as the average value for the life of a worker.
Estimating the value of a human life partially depends on whose life it is. Most of us would assign high values to the lives of our loved ones, but what about the life of a single person randomly selected from the entire population—in all probability, a stranger? The setting of safety standards for highways is an example of this universal problem.
The price of safety is frequently, not monetary. Thomas Hobbes, a sixteenth-century English philosopher, pointed out that greater security entails losses of freedom. Ongoing political debates about handgun control laws are one part of price-setting for human life—how much is society willing to limit the rights of gun fanciers to save each life that might otherwise be ended by a Saturday-night special?
The next time you see someone run a red light, light a cigarette, or if you ever again eat too many potato chips, we hope it will bring to mind the issue of the value of life.