People who distinguish “human costs” from “economic costs” are either making an ideological statement or don’t understand what economic theory usefully calls a cost. Just to quote one example: a Financial Times columnist mentions, as if it goes without saying, the “economic, military and human costs” of further confrontation with the Iranian rulers (“Israel Has No Good Choices on Iran,” April 16, 2024).

In economic theory, a cost is the sacrifice of something scarce (if only one’s time) to pursue a desired outcome or avoid an undesired one. (Note that in both cases, the cost is an opportunity cost: avoiding an undesired outcome implies a more desired alternative; and what is sacrificed for a desired outcome is scarce because it, or the resources to produce it, could be used for some other purpose.) Desired and undesired outcomes only concern human individuals and are evaluated in individual minds. Economic theory is the result of a few centuries of scientific efforts, by some of the most brilliant minds among mankind, to understand cost, benefit, and value in a logically consistent way, and understand what is going on in society.

The ideological reason for distinguishing “human costs” from “economic costs” may be virtue signaling. It amounts to saying, “Look, I am concerned with human costs, while my opponents are only concerned with costs on Sirius, nine light-years from humans”; or  “Here is my badge of honor for membership in the bien-pensant society.”

A Martian landing on Earth might think that singling out “human costs” (as if there were anything else than costs to humans) is necessary to distinguish them from animal costs. To lighten the atmosphere, we might think of the cost a bear has to incur for his beer consumption. (See the featured image of this post.)

Back to humans, there is no epistemological objection to labeling a cat a dog, and a dog a cat, provided everybody understands which animal is referred to. At least at first sight, there is no epistemological objection to calling “human costs” only those costs that do not fall on shunned or hated individuals—social pariahs, bad capitalists, or individuals whose pension funds are invested in capitalist enterprises. But such a distinction is a moral one at best, a morally arbitrary one at worst, and does not help understand how society (interindividual relations) works. The distinction between human and economic costs echoes subliminal advertising for very questionable ideologies.

One objection to my claim is that “economic and human costs” is just a standard way of speaking that everybody understands. But my point is precisely that “everybody” wrongly understands it as implying that economic costs are not all human costs. And there are ways in which an economically literate newspaper could tweak the standard expression without loss of rhetorical benefit. For, example, one could say “economic costs, including costs of life and limb” or “economic costs, including of course all sorts of human costs.” In the Financial Times‘s phrase quoted at the beginning of this post, the “military” is redundant except in such modified phrases as “economic costs, including of course military costs and costs of life and limb.” My fear is that most writers at the Financial Times, like in other media, feel that there are two sorts of costs: costs to “bad” or unpopular individuals, called economic costs, and human costs.


The featured image of this post, a collaboration between your humble blogger and DALL-E, shows a bear paying for its beer, suggesting that other costs than human costs exist. That’s news for the checkout girl.

A bear having to pay for its beer at the check-out counter, proving that not only human costs exist