Valuing human life in public policy
by jerry on May 17, 2020
As much as we would all like to think that the value of a human life is beyond measure, trade-offs are inherent in a system with limited resources, if for no other reason than the possibility that a few million dollars spent saving one person's life might actually be put to use saving more than one life elsewhere. The New York Times published an interesting piece that reviews different dollar amounts that the US government has used to value an individual's life: $885,000 (in today's dollars) in 1972 to near $9 million today. The piece also mentions The World Health Organization's guidelines regarding cost-effective treatment and touches upon the idea of a quality-adjusted life year (known in academia as a QALY).
To a large extent, today's public policy controversy about the timing of when to open up the economy has public policy implications that relate to the value of human life. Lift the restrictions too early, and more people may get infected and die. Lift the restrictions too late, and people may find themselves without ability to buy food and governments might not have enough tax revenue to pay for a number of social programs.