A NYT article makes the seemingly-outrageous but completely rational assertion that the value of life, especially of a terminally ill victim of bad health, is finite. Why should healthy Americans have to pay several times more than their peers in Europe or Japan to be less healthy? Why are we paying tens of thousands to extend the life of a suffering cancer victim when we can’t afford hundreds to immunize children against the cheapest-to-prevent, yet most contagious and deadliest, issues like the flu?

For a better understanding of how paying more can result in less, take a look at this excerpt:

When the media feature someone like Bruce Hardy or Jack Rosser, we readily relate to individuals who are harmed by a government agency’s decision to limit the cost of health care. But we tend not to hear about — and thus don’t identify with — the particular individuals who die in emergency rooms because they have no health insurance. This “identifiable victim” effect, well documented by psychologists, creates a dangerous bias in our thinking. Doyle’s figures suggest that if those Wisconsin accident victims without health insurance had received equivalent care to those with it, the additional health care would have cost about $220,000 for each life saved. Those who died were on average around 30 years old and could have been expected to live for at least another 40 years; this means that had they survived their accidents, the cost per extra year of life would have been no more than $5,500 — a small fraction of the $49,000 that NICE recommends the British National Health Service should be ready to pay to give a patient an extra year of life. If the U.S. system spent less on expensive treatments for those who, with or without the drugs, have at most a few months to live, it would be better able to save the lives of more people who, if they get the treatment they need, might live for several decades.

The last sentence nailed the issue directly.

Americans need to stop falling back on the “You can’t assign a value to life” argument, because it doesn’t work. If you can positively claim that the lives of 10 healthy, productive members of society is somehow worth more than that of a suffering patient in his 80s, waiting for the final strike of his tumor, then you can value life. Life must be valued in relation to other lives in order to avoid the infinite backup that’s guaranteed with trying to arbitrarily come up with a value to life.

The choice is between lowering the poverty of seniors (social security), reducing the effectiveness of our research institutions (higher education funds), alleviating general poverty, immunizing children against various contagious diseases, or extending the miserable lives of a few unlucky individuals by a couple months.

What do you think?

I think that it’s important to prioritize our goals. Otherwise, we will achieve none of them.