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Don Coursey

Economic Value, the Value of Economists, and the Meaning of Life

Don Coursey*

"To many, conclusions about species value seem at odds with the basic instinct that all life is worth saving. This is what makes public policy involving economic valuation of life so difficult."
The next time you come down here you better bring a gun, son. And it better be loaded." Thus ended a phone conversation I had with a concerned citizen from southern Florida in February 1994. I was bewildered by this comment: why would I need to bring a gun to insure my safety in Florida, and why did this gentleman, a stranger, care so much about my welfare?

Earlier that month I publicly presented a report about my research concerning how monies are distributed over the various species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. As an academic economist, my work usually does not get much attention other than that derived from other academic colleagues. And while these colleagues have not always liked my work or its conclusions, it has never been suggested to me that I ought to be armed when defending myself.

In the study, I looked at every land animal on the official list of endangered species. Then I took the total amount of spending by the government on each species and divided it by the population of that species. The result was a measure of value, not value defined by its biological importance, but a measure of how much we as a nation are willing to spend on each member of each endangered species.

The full study can be found on line at New York University's Environmental Law Journal ( The bottom line of the study will be transparent to any reader of the Econlib site: when making trade-offs between species policy makers have favored the few—the so-called glamour species—at the expense of many. Florida panthers, California condors, whooping cranes, grizzly bears, and the bald eagle have won a disproportionate share of the funds for habitat preservation, captive breeding, and the like. Half of the money has been spent on eight species, none at all on some others.

But when I made my presentation concerning funding levels for endangered species, the media went abuzz. The study received a lot of attention and kept my phone ringing for weeks.

One of these phone calls came from a major Southern Florida newspaper. As I talked to the reporter, she kept returning to a point that she found key. The highest valued animal in my study, the Florida panther, was treated financially almost exactly the way in which human lives are treated in a cost-benefit analysis where there is some probability that lives will be lost. That is, we tend to treat for policy purposes each panther or person as if they are worth about $5,000,000. I had not noted this point before and found it interesting myself. The fact that we do treat the most highly valued animal in the study almost exactly how we treat humans raises interesting economic, moral, and philosophical questions.

But that was not what was bothering her. She kept trying to convince me that the value for the panther was too high. She did not want to write a story that implied that a cat was equal to a human. For a while I was polite and recited the standard lines about no study being perfect, how point estimates have noise associated with them, and how this study was just a beginning and warranted further research. But this did not make her happy. She wanted an outright statement that I had over-valued the panther. This I would not do. We went back and forth over this for over two hours.

It became clear to me that her definition of value and my definition of value were not the same. My measure of value was based on analyzing a set of political and bureaucratic outcomes. My measures had no morality attached to them. What she wanted was the "true" metaphysical value of the species. In a bit of a huff, I ended the conversation.

When she wrote her story I understood why she was so dogged in her attempt to make me retract or reduce my conclusions regarding the value of a panther. Unknown to me, the results of my research made national news during a time when environmentalists and ranchers were openly squaring off about the fate of Florida's panthers. The debate had evolved into a duel of opposing apocalypses. To the environmental groups, the world would end if society spared any costs in the preservation of panthers. To the ranchers, the economy of the region would collapse if land and other resources were devoted to panther preservation. I then understood that the reporter from Florida did not want to want to write a story that stated that we are treating panthers as well as we treat humans; to her that would be ammunition that the ranchers might use to further their argument that people and jobs should come before endangered species preservation.

I also understood why I was bewildered by the warning to bring a gun to Florida. This suggestion did not come from any pick-up driving, gun-toting, Florida red-neck. It did not even come from the Florida ranchers or their representatives. It was made by the Florida state president of a leading and nationally respected environmental association! He did not want an economist, mucking around with his tools of economic valuation, to have a place at the table where decisions about the panther's future are being debated.

To many, my conclusions about species value seem at odds with the basic instinct that all life is worth saving. This is what makes public policy involving economic valuation of life so difficult. It also makes economists unpopular at cocktail parties. The fundamental notions of budgets, opportunity costs, and trade-offs become complicated when they are publicly applied to the value of life. The challenge facing the economist in these settings is to find a way of advancing economic reality through the cloud of emotional attachment people hold toward life.


If you are interested in reading the text of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, it can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's website.

Consider this conundrum: The Endangered Species Act places absolute value on privileged plants and animals, a value enjoyed by no other being in society, even a human child. And what is a child worth? The question itself may be repugnant. Some may say that the value of a child's life is infinite, that it is hierarchically more important than other values, or that it is only appropriate to use philosophical or ethical tools to describe a child's value. But while we may all feel that the value of a child's life is infinite, in most cases we do not act as if that is the case.

A claim that society and the law do everything possible to save the lives of all children is obviously untrue. Constraints force us to make choices about how to divide resources between children and other arenas of policy. Sadly, often tacitly, we recognize that the desire to serve our children cannot be satiated; that as a society we cannot afford to place an infinite value on their lives. Election results, government budgets, and agency behavior show that people's willingness to tax themselves is finite, and does not extend to universal care for all.

We cannot treat children as if their worth is infinite—that is the reality of the world we live in. We do not have unlimited resources so we must make choices. And we do; even the hard ones.

Stunningly, however, the Endangered Species Act puts an absolute value on privileged animals and plants. The United States Supreme Court held in TVA v. Hill, that the Act "shows clearly that Congress viewed the value of endangered species as 'incalculable' or in practical terms infinite."

It may seem morally admirable to values any species infinitely, but this position is not much more than a myth, and the practical affect of turning that kind of sympathetic idea into federal policy has been devastating. Because the Act creates an absolute, judicial right for certain species to exist, decisions that ought to be debated among scientists and balanced by the public are now fought in the courts. Rhetorical arguments, often unrealistically extreme, hold sway. One side paints a picture of mass extinction while the other side says that human life will end if its arguments do not prevail. Resulting judgments issue from the mix-master of motion practice and procedural constraints, often based on incomplete science. And ultimately, the law is applied unevenly. A small proportion of the listed species, the "charismatic mega-fauna," end up receiving the lion's share of monetary resources; and my work shows that other species receive little or no attention at all.

What's missing is the anchoring of endangered species protection within the human and natural economy, rather than within absolutist, moral rhetoric. The choices we face require an accounting of the benefits and costs of various programs for saving endangered species. Criteria and analyses that discriminate among species will be controversial but are unavoidable. It's time to acknowledge that endangered species policy is about biology and social choice. We must make discriminating choices about species. But under the current Endangered Species Act regime, the discrimination is done by lawyers and judges rather than a Congress that looks at the impact of choices on the quality of public life.

Congress should take the opportunity to review the unwieldy regime created by the Endangered Species Act. In the present implementation of the Act, lawyers and judges, not scientists and the public, make existential decisions about species in an environment that ignores human—and societal—realities. A new process based upon broader public debate, and focusing on real costs and science, should supplant the existing system.

We cannot ignore the laws of nature when valuing species or humans; neither can we ignore the laws of economics. My point is that accomplishing the latter is much harder than accomplishing the former. We implicitly value life all of the time. But talking in a public policy setting about putting a value on human or animal life makes many people uneasy. Often, the instinctive reaction is that the task is impossible or that life of any form has infinite value. Both problems are perceived as being outside of the realm of economic analysis and belonging to another area of discussion.

These arguments are intellectually bankrupt. But they are strongly and emotionally held by most of the public. The challenge to economists is to tailor their arguments towards this audience. Economists will do well in public policy discussions about life if they get even the basic notions of constraints and opportunity costs onto the table. Economists need to carefully and cleverly make their best principles of economics arguments in these settings. And remember, the other side may be bringing guns.

*Don Coursey is the Ameritech Professor of Public Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago and a partner at the firm Policy Solutions Ltd. in Chicago. His email address is d-coursey at

For more articles by Don Coursey, see the Archive.
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