Acceptable Losses

Whenever the topic turns to some statistic about deaths, such as this news story about workplace fatalities in West Australia, there is a high likelihood that an ever-popular cliché will be trotted out: “Every single death is one too many.” This sentiment, although emotionally satisfying, is quite harmful.

In a perfect world without scarcity, we should of course prevent every death. In the real world, however, our means are limited. We can invest more resources into workplace safety, but work will never be completely safe and resources spent on workplace safety can’t be spent on other things. If we actually place such a high emphasis on workplace safety that we prevent absolutely all workplace fatalities, that would require such an inordinate amount of resources that we would not be able to devote adequate resources to other concerns, such as health, road safety, crime prevention, safety from natural disasters, etc., which would mean more deaths overall.

Nor should the focus just be on safety and security. A life solely devoted to delaying death for as long as possible would not be worth living. It might feel good to say that human life is invaluable and cannot be measured off against profane concerns such as pleasure or worldly possessions, but our belie our pious words. Whenever we drive somewhere or even just cross the street for a non-essential errand, even though we know this will put us at an incread risk of death, we implicitly put a finite value on our own lives. Parents who take their children along similarly demonstrate that they place a finite value on their children’s lives.

We constantly have to make trade-offs between sacred values such as human life and profane values such as money. In our personal lives, most of us manage to do this reasonably well simply by using our common sense intuitions. But these intuitions break down when it comes to public policy. When sacred values are involved, the discussion becomes very lopsided. No matter how much is already spent on workplace safety, healthcare, security against terrorist attacks, etc., it is very hard to publicly argue against increasing funding or for cutting it without appearing callous and cruel. This is not to say that funding for these projects never gets cut, but the playingfield is tilted and there is a general tendency for funding to increase that is independent from the merit of the case.

How this lamentable tendency can be stopped I do not know, but the first step is awareness. The next time you hear someone say that every death is one too many, challenge them. If more people reflect about this, maybe we can get slightly less insane public policy.

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