Perhaps the most unserious response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the facile assertion that lockdowns, the destruction of the economy, and the suppression of our historic freedoms are all justified if they “save just one life.” As Joe Biden put it on Twitter, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: No one is expendable. No life is worth losing to add one more point to the Dow.”
While every person is unique and has an immortal soul, we do not do anything and everything to save lives from all hazards, nor should we. Adults know that there are no easy solutions to most problems, and real life consists of tradeoffs.
No One Really Believes “Just One Life” Nonsense
First, we do not save every life because doing so, however noble our intentions, would be incredibly destructive. Protecting life—in other words, paying for safety—takes away from resources that make life worth living. Does everyone in the “just one life” chorus drive a Volvo? And, for that matter, do those who do also wear a crash helmet while driving or riding in this car? Of course not. Most drive a less safe car so they can afford to go on vacation or get a haircut or buy a new iPhone.
Doing everything possible to save “just one life” would bring life to a halt. Driving a car, for example, is always risky. But we still drive. Similarly, all human interaction has some small chance of spreading a fatal disease, but we still value time with friends and family. Before coronavirus, there was the flu. It kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, especially in vulnerable populations. But no one seriously contemplated a national shutdown to counter that yearly tragedy.
Second, trying to save lives from particular threats may increase the risks from others. Not every investment in safety has the same return, and a range of risks must be balanced. Even accepting the dubious moral premise that saving “just one life” is always worth any expense, doing so might use up resources that could be more effectively deployed against other risks.
We tend to overinvest in certain risks because they’re frightful or merely salient. Many people are worried about coronavirus right now, but do they worry much about the 83,000 who die of diabetes and over 40,000 who die of suicide every year? How about the 67,000 dead from drug overdoses? Or the increases in all of these numbers coming from the shutdowns?
Ideally, we would spend money rationally to maximize the saving of lives and improvement of life overall. But in practice this is all haphazard and distorted by cognitive biases of various kinds.
Finally, we all voluntarily risk death in order to pursue other things of value. This goes beyond thrill-seekers who jump out of planes. All of us do this in more prosaic ways all the time. We take risks in getting behind the wheel, getting on an airplane, choosing what to eat, having a cocktail, living in a city, working on the job, or going for a swim.
We just celebrated Memorial Day. Surely, our military victories were not secured by a monomaniacal concern for “saving just one life.” Victory came first.
We all have an intuitive sense about these things, and individuals vary in their appetites for risk. But we know that the mere extension of life is not the point of life, and we each risk death in some ways every single day.
We Must Value Life Finitely In Order to Make Rational Public Policy
When making policies for others, including designing systems or compensating victims of negligence, we must account for the economic value of life more precisely. This is not undertaken because we are callous about the value of life. It is undertaken precisely because we do value life. In order to demonstrate that in legal terms, however, we have to reduce this value to a number, a dollar amount.
Economists, public health experts, and juries have spent a lot of time pondering the question of the value of a life. They have come up with some sensible answers. While no one would forfeit his life for any amount of money—as you can imagine, the marginal value of money declines precipitously at that point—people are willing to be compensated for a 1 in 1,000 or 1 in 10,000 risk to life.
These risk premiums provide good data on how much economic value people place upon their own lives. This is why an Alaskan fisherman or a coal miner is paid more than, say, a cashier or marketing assistant. If these dangerous jobs command a $1,000 premium for a 1 in 10,000 on-the-job risk, we can extrapolate how people value statistical lives. Incidentally, $1,000 is about the high end of the risk premium for a 1 in 10,000 fatality risk. Thus, various studies have concluded that the economic value of a statistical life is between $5 and 10 million dollars—simple math here $1,000 multiplied by 10,000.
Obviously, merely stating this conclusion sounds a bit callous. But without reducing statistical lives to an economic figure, other choices also denominated in numbers—choices about medical treatments, the placement of traffic lights, airbags, or vaccines—cannot be made in a rational way. Doctors and other decision-makers could not know if it’s worthwhile to spend $100 per patient or $1,000 or $1 million to do one more test, one more surgery, or one more multi-trillion-dollar quarantine effort.
The National Lockdown’s Cost Far Exceeds Its Benefit
Setting aside for a moment that many of the fatalities blamed on the coronavirus may have died from something else, or have had few years left to live in any case, and that the lockdowns may not have stopped even a single coronavirus case—what if we assume that these measures cut the fatalities in half? What if, in their absence, 200,000 would have died, rather than 100,000? Would they be cost-justified?
In the last few months, at least twenty million Americans have lost their jobs. If we assume they made an average of $50,000 per year and are out of work on average for at least a year—how long this will be is anyone’s guess—this is an economic loss of at least $1 trillion. Added to this cost, government deficit spending to forestall an economic freefall has already been in excess of $2 trillion. The loss in paper wealth in the form of retirement accounts is another $2-4 trillion. A total loss in excess of $5 trillion has been incurred to save lives from the coronavirus.
Even assuming lockdowns worked and prevented 100,000 deaths—an extremely generous set of assumptions—the economic benefit would be about $1 trillion assuming the high-end $10 million statistical life value above.
In other words, even under the best-case scenario and best-case assumptions, the costs of the government’s actions here are at least 5 times higher than the benefit. If these measures saved 10,000 lives, they are 50 times higher. If no lives were saved, it was all cost and no benefit.
When things have a cost, it pays to be hard-headed. Government-mandated social distancing, lockdowns, and other efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus only make sense based on fantastic and now demonstrably false assumptions about the coronavirus’ mortality and contagiousness (so-called R0).
It appears no one in charge ever bothered to do some back-of-the-envelope math on whether these measures were worth it. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now conclude that this has been a man-made disaster, the consequences of which far exceed the benefits.
Continuing these measures going forward is unconscionable. We are depressed, demoralized, put upon, and now a poorer nation on account of our elites’ panic about the coronavirus. The “data-driven” fanatics turn out to simply be following the whims of the slippery Dr. Fauci.
He and everyone in charge would benefit from some basic math: five is greater than one. And $5 trillion in economic damage is an absolute disaster equal to the loss of 500,000 lives.