No Policy Can Save Lives; It Can Only Trade Lives

Antony Davies, James R. Harrigan – May 5, 2020

In times of crisis, politicians want to look like they’re doing something, and don’t want to hear about limits on their authority. In times of crisis, people want someone to do something, and don’t want to hear about tradeoffs. This is the breeding ground for grand policies driven by the mantra, “if it saves just one life.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo invoked the mantra to defend his closure policies. The mantra has echoed across the country from county councils to mayors to school boards to police to clergy as justification for closures, curfews, and enforced social distancing.

Rational people understand this isn’t how the world works. Regardless of whether we acknowledge them, tradeoffs exist. And acknowledging tradeoffs is an important part of constructing sound policy. Unfortunately, even mentioning tradeoffs in a time of crisis brings the accusation that only heartless beasts would balance human lives against dollars. But each one of us balances human lives against dollars, and any number of other things, every day.

Five-thousand Americans die each year from choking on solid food. We could save every one of those lives by mandating that all meals be pureed. Pureed food isn’t appetizing, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing. Your chance of dying while driving a car is almost double your chance of dying while driving an SUV. We could save lives by mandating that everyone drive bigger cars. SUVs are more expensive and worse for the environment, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing. Heart disease kills almost 650,000 Americans each year. We could reduce the incidence of heart disease by 14 percent by mandating that everyone exercise daily. Many won’t want to exercise every day, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing.

Legislating any of these things would be ridiculous, and most sane people know as much. How do we know? Because each of us makes choices like these every day that increase the chances of our dying.

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Image credit: Stephanie Martin on Unsplash

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