Fukuyama's Perfectly Horrifying Example
By Bryan Caplan
Life extension seems to me a perfect example of something that is a negative externality, meaning that it is individually rational and desirable for any given individual, but it has costs for society that can be negative.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Did Frank Fukuyama actually mean that when a person has another year of healthy life, the net effect on other people is negative? If so, why do people cry at funerals, instead of celebrating? Fukuyama’s statement was so hateful and twisted that I wondered if he was being quoted out of context. So I dug up the full paragraph:
The second argument [against life extension] –and this should appeal to libertarians that take individual choice seriously–is really a question of the social consequences of life extension. Life extension seems to me a perfect example of something that is a negative externality, meaning that it is individually rational and desirable for any given individual, but it has costs for society that can be negative. I think if you want to understand why this is so, you just think about why evolution makes us, why we die in the first place, why in the process of evolution populations are killed off. I think it clearly has an adaptive significance, and in human society generational succession has an extremely important role. There is the saying among economists that the science of economics proceeds one funeral at a time, and in a certain sense a lot of adaptations to new situations–politically, socially, environmentally–really depend on one generation succeeding another.
The extra words definitely make Fukuyama’s position more confusing, but they take away none of the horror. You’d think that a “perfect example” of a negative externality would be easy to explain and hard to dispute – like air pollution. But to make his case, Fukuyama has to appeal to the controversial notion of group selection: Human beings evolved to die because it’s adaptive for society. His specific mechanism – death stops elders from impeding progress – would be controversial even for believers in group selection. After all, during our evolutionary history, there was almost no progress to impede!
The real mystery, though, is why Fukuyama thinks that this argument would “appeal to libertarians.” Even if you couldn’t care less about human liberty, there are plenty of non-lethal ways around the “dead hand of the past.” If aging CEOs refuse to give young upstarts a chance, what happens now? The upstarts don’t wait around for “generational succession”; they open a competing firm.
On purely pragmatic grounds, then, Fukuyama’s argument is about as feeble as “Life extension is bad for morticians.” Since libertarians would add moral objections to government coercion on top of purely pragmatic concerns, why would they of all people see the “appeal” of Fukuyama’s argument against life extension?