Saturday, April 21, 2012

So, that life thing... what's it worth to ya?

Here's a question.  How much (in dollars) is a human life worth?  Priceless?  Hardly.  Given the impact on the earth's limited resources, it could be argued that there's a net benefit to one less person (resulting in a negative value for a life).  However, in social, and economic terms, a life certainly has a (positive) value.  This isn't just a philosophical question, there are a lot of situations where we really need to know.  It's time to come to have a responsible discussion and come up with a reasonable, consistent number.

Society puts a value on life all the time.  Courts, insurance companies, even municipalities deciding whether to make road safety improvements are putting a dollar value on your life every day.  The problem with modern society is that we are inconsistent, unjust, and unequal in our assessment.   For example, if you are killed by an American State, you are probably worth around $100 to 300K (regardless of weather it was an accented or not).  If you die because a doctor misdiagnosed you then it's a jackpot!  This woman hadn't even died yet.  Of course, that's medical malpractice in the United States, in other parts of the world, it's not so much a jackpot as a joke (in Europe, it can be a real challenge to raise a malpractice claim at all).  If a US military soldier barges into your house and kills your whole family (for no apparent reason) you are likely to receive a paltry sum.  If you are homeless and you die because no one will give you a warm place to sleep, then the value is probably $0, and if the state can find heirs, they may charge them for the disposal.

Wouldn't it be a little more equitable if we as a society came up with a single number, and applied it consistently?  This is not a new or original idea, in the 5th century the 'Barbarian Code' (an ironic appellation considering that, on this topic, the code was more sophisticated then our current system) contains the concept of 'WereGild'.  According to Philip Grierson the Barbarian Code itself was quite a complex list of values and equivalences, such that if the responsible party did not have actual cash money (which was not in common circulation) then an equivalent number of say chickens could be supplied.  So there you go, modern law does not even give you a value in dollars, let alone chickens.  outrageous!

If life had a price, it would set a useful benchmark for all sorts of other compensation issues too.  For example, lose an eye, or a limb on the job, and the compensation should work out to be some proportion of the compensation due for a life.  Naturally, in cases where the injury (or loss of life) was caused by gross negligence, or intentional action, then the compensation award could be a multiple of the normal value.  This would immediately solve one of the major issues in American healthcare by reducing medical malpractice awards, and by extension malpractice insurance that doctors must pay.   There are other legal is issues that impact healthcare costs, but this would go a long way to fixing things.

Setting a value for life would allow us to plan our society in a much more consistent way.  Insurance liabilities could be estimated with much more accuracy.  Safety improvements could be more easily analyzed for their cost/benefit.  Fair, consistent settlements for wrongful death would be easily arranged, and could probably even avoid expensive court trials.  The benefits are obvious, what's the drawback?

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