What is a human life 'worth'?

If someone approached you and offered you $1 million to let him kill you, would you accept? What if the price was $2 million? $5 million?

Most people would probably say that there is no price at which they would sell their life. But that doesn’t prevent businesses and governments from setting a dollar value on our lives.

A recent article in the New York Times (“As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret”, by Binyamin Appelbaum, February 17) reported on some to-ing and fro-ing over the dollar value that US regulatory agencies put on human life, and also described how this value is used. It cited this real example:

In 2005, the Bush administration had a proposal to require the strengthening of roofs in new vehicles; it estimated that this would save 135 lives a year in accidents in which a vehicle flips over. “At the time, Transportation officials figured that the cost of the roofs would exceed the value of lives saved by almost $800 million. So the agency proposed a smaller [and cheaper] increase in roof strength that might save 44 lives a year.” That is, it was considered uneconomical to save another 91 lives per year.

‘Statistical value’

Different methods have been and still are used to calculate the dollar value of human life. One method is to add up the future wages that are lost if a worker dies. This means that the older someone is, the less her/his life is worth. Another technique is to survey people on how much they would spend or give up in order to avoid a danger; if there is a 1-in-1000 chance that something will kill you, and people say they would give up $4000 a year to avoid that danger, then the “statistical value of life” is said to be 1000 times $4000, or $4 million. A third method is like the second except that it uses the extra wages that have to be paid to get people to perform a dangerous job, rather than what people say they would require.

These methods calculate the lives of people in poor countries as less valuable than lives of people in rich countries. US economist Lawrence Summers, now the director of the National Economic Council in the Obama administration, was chief economist of the World Bank from 1991 to 1993. In that position, he signed a now notorious memo that stated: “... the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that ... I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted.”

Summers’ memo was based on the same kind of reasoning, known as cost-benefit analysis. This has a very small rational kernel, namely that human society is not yet rich and productive enough to do everything that it would be desirable to do if there were no limits on available resources. Conceivably, we could spend so much time and energy trying to cure a very rare disease that we didn’t devote sufficient attention to removing a danger that affected many more people.

Resources wasted

But the resources available for any worthwhile task are not fixed by nature. They are limited at present mainly because capitalist society devotes huge resources to warfare, obscene profits for capitalists and unproductive activities such as advertising.

Putting a dollar value on human life seems “natural” under capitalism because capitalism is driven to make everything into an object that can be bought and sold. That distorts the real character of human beings and our relations with each other and with the environment.

The cost-benefit analysis also has a particular advantage for capitalism. The analysis weighs up the costs and benefits for the entire country, for “society” as a whole. That conceals the fact that different groups are usually paying the costs and receiving the benefits. The vehicle company capitalists, for example, wouldn’t benefit from better vehicle roofs, and they have to pay the costs of stricter regulations. So they oppose regulations regardless of the “value” of the lives saved. Not only are human lives assigned a dollar number; capitalism also under-values life.