By Bryan Caplan
Economists are often accused of believing that everything - health, happiness, life itself - can be measured in money. What we actually believe is even odder. We believe that everything can be measured in anything. --David Friedman, Hidden Order
Economists’ have long struggled to get non-economists to put a dollar value on human life. We’ve almost completely failed. No matter how high the dollar value you use, non-economists hear callous minimization of human suffering. Is there any way to quantify the magnitude of Awful without seeming awful yourself?
I say there is. From now on, let us measure each horror in “Murder Equivalents.” The Murder Equivalent of X, by definition, is the number of ordinary murders that would be just as bad as X. The concept allows for the reasonable possibility that some deaths are less bad than a normal murder. The Murder Equivalent of an accidental death, for example, might only be .5 The concept also allows for the reasonable possibility than some deaths are worse than a normal murder. The Murder Equivalent for a death by terrorism, for example, might be 2. A terrible war that lays a country waste might be twice the number of deaths from war crimes, plus the number of civilian deaths, plus .5 times the number of soldier deaths, plus one per $10 M in property damage.
Logically, this re-scaling is no better than a sophisticated Value of Life calculation. Psychologically, however, it’s far better. Comparing something to murder doesn’t sound callous. Nor does it minimize the badness. It only puts the world in perspective. Many salacious front-page horror headlines are clearly less bad than one murder. Thinking in terms of Murder Equivalents would help diffuse such distractions, reducing the risk of costly crusades against relatively minor problems.
Yes, I know that many people will angrily reject any metric that potentially implies their gut emotional reactions are unreasonable. As usual, I’m working at the margin. How can we get more people to think numerately about the horrors of the world? Murder Equivalents is the best idea I’ve got.