The question every society answers but no one wants to ask.

During a press conference a couple of days ago New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that if all of the sweeping expensive measures spent on the corona virus saved even one life, it would be worth it.

That’s an expected comment from a politician, but it just doesn’t make a lick of sense and everyone knows it.  The fundamental question is: “What value does society put on a human life?”  The political answer is:  “A human life is priceless; no amount of money is worth a human life.”  No one believes that, not even Cuomo.

About 35,000 Americans die each year in car and truck accidents.  If politicians honestly believed every single human life is priceless, they would enact a 10 mph maximum speed limit.   Every person in a truck or automobile would be required to wear a seat belt and a government approved crash helmet at all times.  The government would also have to spend billions of taxpayer dollars for extra police to enforce this edict.

The public would never support this economy-choking restriction for obvious reasons.  The calculus is simple; it is better to lose 35,000 lives than to grind the economy to a halt.  It appears that human lives are far from priceless.  Besides, you and I are not going to be among the 35,000 people who die.  Right?

The value of human life also depends upon the wealth and attitudes in the country that a person lives.  I was once on a flight from London to Boston.  Over the Atlantic Ocean, two hours west of London, a man on my flight suffered a heart attack.  The plane dumped fuel and diverted to Prestwick, Scotland where paramedics rushed him to the hospital.  We later learned that he had thankfully survived.  I thought about the costs of the diversion to save his life.  Jet fuel dumped into the atmosphere, crew salaries, refueling in Scotland, and the value of the time of 400 passengers who lost perhaps six hours due to the delay.  None of the passengers grumbled about the delay.  The societal consensus was confirmed; this man’s life was worth at least one million dollars.  I’m not sure that a North Korean’s life is worth anywhere near than amount.

Today we are faced with the ultimate dilemma as we weigh the benefits of short run sheltering with the costs associated with locking down the economy.  Most agree that we should shelter now so that we don’t overwhelm our health care system, but we also know that we can’t shut down the economy for much longer.  For now there is a general consensus that the health benefits of sheltering exceed the costs of choking down the economy.  In my opinion, within the next two weeks the tables will tilt toward restarting the economy.  As everyone knows, but no one wants to admit, human life is not priceless.

 

 

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