Shared Public Lies
Sometimes it feels easier to believe in lies than to take
an honest look at things the way they are. When that is the case,
it is as though, as a society, we publicly sanction a lie. The
following is an example of one such lie.
If It Saves One Life It's Worth It
The lie that some new regulation or action is worth it if
it saves one life is just a pleasant thought, usually with no
relation to reality. It may or may not be worth it, depending
on the cost. You can rightfully put unlimited value on your own
life. However, all actions to save others lives have to take
into account the real cost.
For example, as a nation we could save 45,000 lives by strictly
limiting highway speeds to 20 miles per hour (lets be honest
- dying from an accident at that speed is rare). Permanently
revoking the driver's license of anyone violating the limit would
probably keep most people obeying it. Of course that would be
too inconvenient for us. It is too high a price for us - even
though it would likely save 45,000 lives.
The real question then, is this: How much is it actually worth
to us to save a life? For example, if a new safety feature required
by law in cars saves 200 lives per year, is it worth it to us
to each pay $50 more? If 20 million cars are sold each year,
this would be one billion dollars extra cost, or about 5 million
dollars per life saved. Of course, we could decide that as a
society we will pay just 3 million, or as much as 10 million.
When looked at in this honest way, more lives will be saved,
because regulations will be aimed at maximum efficiency in achieving
results. If there is a way to save 1,000 lives for a cost of
just 100 million dollars, we would rationally choose that instead,
because we could save more lives at a lower cost ($100,000 per
According to the lie, saving a life should have unlimited
value to society. When people believe this, it is difficult to
argue against inefficient regulations if they happen to save
a life or two. All such regulations have a real cost, and if
we impose a cost for less efficient safety regulations, we have
the ability to save fewer lives. There is a limit to what we
can do, after all. The lie ignores this at our peril.
Let's look at this another way. Suppose we were to decide
that as a society we are willing to impose a cost of just x dollars
(say 30 billion) per year on the economy or taxpayers in order
to save lives. In this case it is natural to look for the ways
that save the most lives with the money or economic strength
available. This is much more rational, and will actually result
in a safer society.
Unfortunately, the lie that "if it saves just one life
it is worth it," is just one example of the many lies we
tell ourselves as a society.