Governments Should Get Honest about Calculating the Price of a Human Life

Joseph Dana
4 min readApr 30, 2020

In March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his state would never put a price on human life when considering how and when to reopen the economy. He said this during one of his popular daily briefings on the Covid-19 pandemic, and the sentiment has been echoed by leaders around the world. Yet, this kind of apparently compassionate statement tends to say more about the personal belief of the speaker than it does about policymaking by, indeed, those very same politicians. For Cuomo, the calculus between economics and lives is clear — government cannot “put a value on a human life”. This is, sadly, not true.

Governments, private companies, and even courts all over the world regularly put a price on life. While the Covid-19 crisis has brought this compelling debate into sharp focus, it does not appear to be creating any meaningful changes in how we understand this ethical dilemma.

Let’s start with the facts. Governments do not spend every available resource on health care in order to save as many lives as possible. This is astonishingly clear from the state of health-care systems seen during the pandemic. Also, we don’t build cars that have maximum safety standards because they would cost too much. More specifically, according to health economist Howard Steven Friedman, the US government currently values a life at roughly $10 million, regardless of age or socioeconomic background. Without such a calculation, actuarial calculations would be difficult to determine. In his forthcoming book, “Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life,” Friedman notes that “the price tags, and the methods used to develop them, are a reflection of our values as a society. They are infused with influences from economics, ethics, religion, human rights and law.”

Those calculations are also influenced by science and medical ethics. Consider the ethical issues facing scientists and doctors working on the frontlines of the pandemic. Francois Balloux, director of the Genetic Institute at University College London, recently tweeted that infectious disease epidemiology is about minimizing the number of lives lost, given the available resources. “It’s a numbers game and it’s not always pretty or nice,” he wrote.

Governments, private companies…