By Arnold Kling
Mr. Landsburg’s argument finesses the important distinction between a “statistical life” and an “identified life.” The concepts were introduced by the economist Thomas C. Schelling, who observed the apparent paradox that communities often spend millions of dollars to save the life of a known victim – someone trapped in a mine, for example – yet are often unwilling to spend even $200,000 on a highway guardrail that would save an average of one life each year.
This disparity is not economically irrational, Mr. Schelling insisted, because the community values what it is buying so differently in the two cases. It is one thing to risk one’s own life in an unlikely automobile accident, but quite another to abandon a known victim in distress.
Frank refers to an article by Steven E. Landsburg arguing that it was cost-effective to disconnect the ventilator of a terminally ill woman who apparently wanted to live to see a relative. I did not find Landsburg’s thought-experiment concerning insurance at all persuasive. That does not mean that I believe that the woman should have been kept alive.
However, I find the claim by Frank (or by Schelling?) that it is rational for “the community” to pay more to save an identified life than a statistical life to be highly suspect. Even assuming that I have no personal relationship with the people involved, I can see where I might instinctively prefer saving an identified life to saving statistical lives. However, if I thought about it, I probably would conclude that this instinct is not rational on my part. If my instinctive valuation is irrational for me as an individual, then why is not also an irrational valuation for “the community” to make?