Age and the Value of Life: A Further Reply
By Bryan Caplan
“Old Lives Matter.” I fully agree with the title of Jeremy Horpedahl’s latest reply on the value of life. To say that the life of an 80-year-old is worth 1% or .1% as much as the life of a 10-year-old is not deny the high value of elderly lives, because 10-year-old lives are immensely valuable.
However, I disagree with almost all of Jeremy’s arguments. To wit:
Let’s start with Caplan’s three reasons, which he calls “iron-clad”: young people have more years to live, those years are generally healthier, and young people will be missed more when they are gone. The first in undeniably true on average, the second is probably true almost all the time, and I’m not sure on the third, but I’m willing to admit it’s not a slam dunk either way.
So how can I disagree? These are only three things. There are many other considerations, and we can imagine other reasons that old lives are valued as much or more than younger lives! I’ll call mine 4-6 to go with Caplan’s 1-3:
- Old age spending is the largest component of public budgets in developed countries (and this is unlikely mostly due to rent seeking or the self interest of younger generations).
- The elderly possess wisdom which is highly valuable and that the young benefit from.
- The last years of your life are, on average, worth a lot more — you are usually very wealthy, have no employment obligations, you have grandchildren you love (without the responsibilities of parenting), and are (until the very end) generally healthy too.
Taken as a whole, I think these three reasons present a strong counterargument to Caplan’s three reasons. And I think we could certainly come up with more! My point being that Caplan has picked three areas where clearly young lives have the advantage, but ignored all the good reasons why old lives are more valuable.
I deny that any of these reasons are even in the same ballpark as mine. Using Jeremy’s numbering:
4. As I explain in The Myth of the Rational Voter and elsewhere, government policy is largely based on what people feel comfortable publicly saying. Ugly truths are politically impotent, which is the central reason why public policy is so terribly inefficient. And “The lives of the elderly are worth much less than the young’s” is a quintessential ugly truth.
5. A few elderly people are wise, but they were almost certainly even wiser a couple decades earlier. By any standard measure, their elderly’s cognitive abilities are in severe decline. Their non-verbal IQ plummets, and their IQ on timed tests is especially low. More to the point, the elderly score low on psychometric tests of common sense, also known as “wisdom.” Unlike IQ, common test rises into middle age; after that, though, common sense gradually declines to tragically low levels. Which is why the elderly are so vulnerable to scams, fail to pay their bills, back up their cars without checking their mirrors, and so on.
6. Even if the last years of life had especially high marginal value, I’d still be right that the total value of the last years of your life must be worth much less than the total value of your entire life. But Jeremy’s arguments that your “golden years” have high marginal value are also weak. Yes, being a grandparent is great; I’m really looking forward to it. But it’s consumption, not mere wealth, that people enjoy – and the elderly have low consumption. People normally like working, if only for the social component. And the idea that the elderly are “generally healthy” is absurd. About half of people 80+ say their health is “fair” or “poor” – and they’re obviously grading on a curve. A 20-year-old with the health of a “healthy” 80-year-old would be considered severely ill.
Jeremy then covers a lot of empirical research on estimates of the value of life by age. A great literature review, but the main thing it shows is that my view is less aberrant than Jeremy initially suggested. Many papers do not reach the insane conclusion that the total value of life rises as time slips through your fingers.
He closes with:
For my last point, let me zoom out and mention again why we are discussing this question in April 2021. It’s related to COVID-19. If indeed Caplan is correct, and an elderly life is only worth 1/1,000 of a young life, not only are “lockdowns” not justified, we would be foolish to take any steps to protect the elderly. In this case, we not only need to junk Social Security and Medicare, we need to junk the Great Barrington Declaration too. Focused Protection of the elderly? What foolishness, those lives aren’t worth more than a few pennies!
Greatly overstated. If 10-year-old lives are worth $20M, and 80-year-old lives are worth 1% as much, they’re still worth $200,000, not “pennies.” Moderate COVID caution for non-vaccinated individuals is in order, as I’ve been saying all along. But yes, reasonable estimates of the value of elderly lives do greatly undermine the case for the totalitarian COVID crusade of the last year. Indeed, even if we count all years of life equally (not lives, but years of life), the totalitarian COVID crusade badly fails a cost-benefit test.
P.S. What if I were elderly? Since I’m only slightly past my peak IQ and common sense, I wish to state for the record that if there is ever a similar pandemic when I am elderly, my considered judgment is that (a) I do not want my family or friends to greatly disrupt their lives to protect me, and (b) I absolutely do not want to be isolated from family or friends for “my own protection.” Indeed, since I plan to still be working at 80, I would like to continue teaching in-person during this future pandemic, though I would reluctantly choose to wear a mask when doing so.