Monday, October 10, 2005

Pondering Walter Williams: Price of Life

For our micro class, Prof. Walter Williams created a list of questions for us to ponder over the course of the semester. With our first test looming, I broke out the packet and came across this particularly interesting one:

30. a) Is life priceless? What evidence can you offer to support your contention?

My short answer is "No, because people die."

Granted, this is a little simplistic; sometimes people would pay anything to save someone but they can't because of natural or legal barriers. So my slightly longer answer is "No, because life-sustaining goods cost a finite amount."

Food, for example, costs a measurable number, even the healthy stuff. If life was priceless, then food would cost a great deal more. Indeed, nothing is priceless. When I went to the Natural History Museum and saw the Hope Diamond, I overheard a guard responding to a woman's question of the object's worth. "It's priceless," he said.

But we know the government doesn't think the diamond is priceless because if it did, they wouldn't risk showing it to the public; they would keep it hidden at all times to make it that much harder for thieves and revolutionaries. Similarly, if human life was priceless, we'd never risk leaving our homes and be 100% risk averse. We clearly are not so careful.


E Hillblom said...

The price of food or life sustaining equipment doesn't say much about how much we value life. It rather tells us what it's worth to the producer to grow the food.

I myself would pay everything I had (as well as sell my soul to the devil) for food when starving. Wouldn't you?

*My* life has infinite value to me, I think. *Your* life is a lot cheaper though ;)

e hillblom said...

Well, forget that last part. I agree with you that crossing the street hints at a finite value even of my precious life.

David said...

Just because the producer can make a profit on selling food doesn't mean that s/he couldn't make MORE of a profit by charging more. If people valued their own life infinitely, then producers could infintely bid up the price, no matter how many producers there are.

Infinity/n equals infinity, where n=number of producers.

But because it's finite, prices go down as the number of substitutes increase.

penxv said...

Is life priceless? Yes and no. I t deoends from who's perspective. From my perspective, it is. I would pay any amount and endure any strife if I know that I would survive.

However, To an objective observer, different lives are worth vastly different amounts.

Obviously Orville and Wilbur Wright's lives were priceless and then some. Thomas Edison... priceless.

Bill Clinton... what did he produce?
George Bush... what did he produce?

Lives have value based on how useful the person is. Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers were GIANTS compared to men like Bill Clinton and both Bushes. Who were all expendable and replaceable parasites.

David said...

See, I would say that Edison's life was not priceless, nor the Wrights. Would you be willing to kill, say, a million "replaceables" to save Edison or either Wright? If their existence is priceless, you would have to say "yes." But I have a feeling you'd say "no."

I'll agree that prices (and pricelessness) differ from person to person. But prices are form from the consensus of the masses. If one person values her life infinitely, then that value has infinite weight on the general price, driving that price to an endless bound. Because, by your words, everyone values their life infintely, all values would reflect that priceless value. As I showed before, that is clearly not the case.

Because you are willing to engage in risk, you clearly do not think your life is priceless.

mthomas1776 said...

I would say that "life" is priceless, but no one person's life is priceless. This leads people to make seemingly ridiculous choices in the face of "life." see saving private ryan plus the observation that human rationality allows us to value life, so the last marginal unit would be of infinate value, the first marginal unit is of almost zero value.
Consider life insurance. Is it true that you can insure yourself more than you are currently doing? Is anyone maximimumly insured? So clearly you are making trade offs between the value of yourself to your loved ones, and your own enjoyment of life. Does this shed light on the problem?
Evidence is that we DO make risky decesions (hat tip to David for pointing this out) so we can infer that actually enjoying life is more important to most people than prolonging it indefinately. We don't have a mechanism to see if people would choose to maximize number of seconds that they live, vs. some measure of interpersonal utility between two alternative life states. Maybe we could figure this out once science catches up with theory (thanks, prescott).
I for one see that people prefer to enjoy life, people tend to discount other's individual lives, but to have sentimental attachment to the concept of other people continuing to exist. So my suggestion is that life has a non-zero price that is determined by a sphere of influence. Bill Gates is worth more because he contributed much to society through making sure that so many people would have access to technology. Melinda Gates is worth more because she makes Bill happy. Bush is worth more, becuase his is a focal point for the masses, and becuase he is important to the corporation known as "the bush family." ad nausium, ad redundum...

David said...

/signed, for the most part. I'm unsure what you mean by "life," in this presumably broad sense. It is the idea of life, of what it represents and allows? Or do we think of our life bein priceless but we just don't know it? Or is the overarching existence of life, as in, "me dying isn't SO bad because there are others like me that will continue to defend what I stand for?"

Anonymous said...

"Priceless" simply means "without price" so price is irrevelent. So can you buy a life and do with it as you will? No. That is slavery. It doesn't matter how much money you have, you cannot buy the Hope Diamond. In that respect life is priceless. However you can put a monetary value on ending a life like when a company decides that it's cheaper to settle with survivors than fix a defect.

mthomas1776 said...

yeah, "life" would have to be defined as some continued existance of our species. There would be an infinite loss to me to think that our entire civilization was to be destroyed, but I regularly suffer the knowledge that individual people die each day without it changing my actions very much at all.
The only problem is that if EVERYONE dies I am not sure I will care that much either. It may only be in the limit, if I am one of the only few left, that I would care.

David said...

True that a priceless object has no price but that's because that price is viewed as infinite. Because infinity is a concept, not a number, you can't attribute a value to it; it becomes priceless.

I have problems claiming anything is priceless because everything is exposed to risk. During the Cuba Missile Crisis, we came incredibly close to a nuclear war, which is awful close to destorying all humanity. If life (in the general sense) was priceless, that wouldn't have happened.

Now you could claim that people just forgot for those extreme few days. But I would argue that the whole Cold War toed that line of nuclear annilation and that lasted several decades. I don't think anything is priceless.