What's Killing Us? A Huemer Guest Post
By Bryan Caplan
killing us? I made the following graph. I include the top ten causes of
death in the U.S., plus homicide and illegal drug overdoses, because
the latter two are actually discussed in political discourse.
1. The top causes of death almost never appear in political discourse
or discussions of social problems. They’re almost all diseases, and
there is almost no debate about what should be done about them. This is
despite that they are killing vastly more people than even the most
destructive of the social problems that we do talk about. (Illegal drugs
account for 0.7% of the death rate; murder, about 0.6%.)
is not because there is nothing to be done about the leading causes of
death. Changes in diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes can make
very large differences to your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other
major diseases, and this is well-known.
3. It’s also not because
it’s uncontroversial what we should do about them, or because everybody
already knows. The government could, for example, try to discourage
tobacco smoking, alcohol use, and overeating, and encourage exercise.
There are many ways this could be attempted. Perhaps the government
could spend more money on trying to cure the leading diseases. There
obviously are policies that could attempt to address these problems, and
it would certainly not be uncontroversial which ones, if any, should be
adopted. Those who support social engineering by the government might
be expected to be campaigning for the government to address the things
that are killing most of us.
4. Most of these leading killers are
themselves mainly caused by old age. If “Old Age” were a category, it
would be causing by far the majority of deaths. Again, it’s not the case
that nothing could be done about this. We could be doing much more
medical research on aging.
5. It’s also not that we just don’t
care about diseases. *Some* diseases are treated as political issues,
such that there are activists campaigning for more attention and more
money to cure them. There are AIDS activists, but there aren’t any
nephritis activists. There are breast cancer walks, but there aren’t any
colon cancer walks.
6. Hypothesis: We don’t much care about the
good of society. Refinement: Love of the social good is not the main
motivation for (i) political action, and (ii) political discourse. We
don’t talk about what’s good for society because we want to help our
fellow humans. We talk about society because we want to align ourselves
with a chosen group, to signal that alignment to others, and to tell a
story about who we are. There are AIDS activists because there are
people who want to express sympathy for gays, to align themselves
against conservatives, and thereby to express “who they are”. There are
no nephritis activists, because there’s no salient group you align
yourself with (kidney disease sufferers?) by advocating for nephritis
research, there’s no group you thereby align yourself *against*, and you
don’t tell any story about what kind of person you are.
conclusion, this sucks. Because we actually have real problems that
require attention. If we won’t pay attention to a problem just because
it kills a million people, but we need it also to invoke some
ideological feeling of righteousness, then the biggest problems will
continue to kill us. And by the way, the smaller problems that we
actually pay attention to probably won’t be solved either, because all
our ‘solutions’ will be designed to flatter us and express our
ideologies, rather than to actually solve the problems.