113. "The Need to Put a Price on Life" The Washington Post (October 29, 1978). Reprinted in the Journal of Physical Education and Recreation, vol. 50, no. 6 (June 1979), pp. 39-40; as "How Much is a Life Worth?" The Detroit News Magazine (December 3, 1978) and Social Policy, vol. 9, no. 5 (March-April 1979), pp. 4-8.


Representatives of several leading U.S. corporations have adopted a new technique against the movement for safer products, workplaces and other environments. Rather than get entangled in the complex and emotional questions of how much safety we can afford, how much a life is worth, they have chosen - indeed, invented - a much easier target: the "risk-free society."

At a recent Washington meeting sponsored by the Public Affairs Council (an organization of "government liaison" officers of major American corporations), for example, consumer activists and proponents of tighter controls on nuclear reactors repeatedly were referred to as champions of such a society, knights of an absurd idea. In fact, a speech by Reginald H. Jones, chairman and chief executive of General Electric, distributed at this meeting, was called "The Vain Search for a Risk-Free Society."

The implication that this search was downright un-American was expressed in the subtitle: "In our search for a risk-free society, we are in danger of risking everything: our liberty, our hard-won standard of living, our range of choices, our great and venturesome system of private enterprise.

The decline of the "frontier spirit" was similarly lamented by other conference participants. If our forefathers had not taken risks, they reasoned we would all be bunched up on the East Coast today. What is to become of our future if we all grow timid?

Unfortunately, leading consumer advocates and environmentalists have been playing into the corporations' hands, often refusing themselves to deal with the difficult but essential issue of which types of safety and health are most affordable. Indeed, several of them have outspokenly rejected any attempt to apply rational calculations to public policy on this issue, and particularly to place dollar signs on life.

"Despicable" was the word a United Steelworkers representative used to describe attempts to calculate the cost of saving a life by, say, controlling the fumes of coke ovens. One environmentalist writer has called considerations such as what are "socially acceptable risks" in exposure to cancer-producing agents nothing less than "the crudest mask for institutional violence."

The Non-Zealot Majority

Luckily, the majority of Americans seems wiser, and certainly more moderate, than the more outspoken advocates of either camp - and more willing to deal with the questions of the limits of safety and the trade-offs involved.

The majority, according to recent evidence, is not at all hitched to a runaway bandwagon to build a quality-of-life America at any cost. A national sample of Americans recently was confronted with the following dilemma: "Reducing risk obviously increases costs in many cases. In general, in America today, do you think we pay more in reducing risk than we should, about the right amount, or are paying less than we should?" Only 15 percent felt that we pay too little, while 30 percent believed that we already pay too much and 34 percent that we were paying "the right amount." (These data reflected views as of this past summer. They were presented by Gene Pokorny of Cambridge Reports at the very conference which promoted the specter of a wanton quest for a risk-free society.)

Thus even if one went so far as to view those who seek more quality of life for contemporary America as "safety freaks" or "security-blanket addicts," only 1 out of 6 Americans would qualify. Similarly, the data suggest, only 13 percent of the American public felt that it was worth creating a risk-free society. The vast majority clearly is quite realistic, neither believing in nor advocating a zero-risk society.

Moreover, as Pokorny pointed out, "More than one-half of the public shows [a] pattern of selective reaction to risk - that is, individually, they do not always opt for risk, or for safety." Thus, a majority was willing to risk driving a car without an air bag but preferred not to live where smokestacks pollute the environment or to hold jobs where there are dangerous substances. Even in the latter instances the details made a difference: the greater the costs of safety, the more people were willing to accept the exposure. Similarly, an earlier study found that while 51 percent of Americans are willing to pay "less than $10 for improving their natural surroundings, only 18 percent will put up $50 - and a mere 4 percent, $100 or more."

Most Americans clearly are a non-zealot lot. They seem to feel that an affluent nation should be able to buy some quality of life - or to trade some economic growth for social progress - but are not willing to undermine the gilded machine which produces the affluent way of life.

The Value of a Life

Assuming that policymakers will heed the majority rather than strident voices from either camp, they face a second set of questions: Can one measure how much a life is worth? Isn't an attempt to put dollar value on a person's life highly unethical? Would it force the government to play God, deciding which programs save lives at a reasonable cost and which lives cannot be saved because it would be "too expensive"?

But Washington, in effect, already makes such decisions. Every time safety requirements for autos, highways, airports or dams are delayed, for example, judgement is implicitly passed on the fate of thousands of lives and on millions of dollars of property.

A related accommodation to the reality of safety promotion is, in fact, already occurring. Washington is switching from trying to embrace almost every potential safety hazard - which threatened to overwhelm the business community with paperwork, regulations and expenses - to focusing on major sources of hazards.

Thus the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission over the past two years have been paying much greater attention to a relatively short list of items rather than to their previous comprehensive lists. As Susan King, head of the consumer product agency, recently put it: "We're not trying to create the perfect product or the perfect marketplace." The commission, for example, has vastly reduced its preoccupation with a comparatively low source of risk, pool slides, and increased its attention to CB antennas, which killed an estimated 495 persons in 1975 and 1976, as people mounting them touched high-voltage wires.

Using figures to calculate the human costs involved in an array of health and safety areas would merely render such judgements more explicit.

Some suggest that making implicit judgements of this nature explicit would damage the moral fiber of the country. Ethicists fear that the specter of public officials explicitly condemning human beings here to death on the highways or there to the consumption of carcinogenic agents "for two more years" would make the public even more cynical about government and more callous about human life.

Nevertheless, a strong case can be made for shaping public policy in these matters openly rathern than implicitly. First, there is precious little evidence that explicit policymaking has the feared dehumanizing impact. When committees explicitly ruled on who was - and was not - to be put on kidney dialysis machines while there were still many more patient than machines, for example, there were no visible ill effects on the public.

Second, implicit decisionmaking is hidden decisionmaking. Hidden decisions tend to bow to prejudices and power, open decisions, while they cannot solve this problem, can help counter it. Thus, if tobacco-growing subsidies had a human-life-lost price attached to them, their annual adoption by Congress might well be slowed.

Finally, estimates of the comparative costs and benefits of various quality-of-life policies can help us make much more sensible use of whatever resources we do seek to set aside for improving safety. There are obviously huge differences, for example, in the benefits of appropriating $4 billion, as the House recently did, to reduce airplane noise, which is mainly an irritant, and spending the same amount on, say, highway safety, where thousands of lives are lost each year because of poor embankments, lack of dividers or poles which do not snap away on impact. Similarly, there is a large difference between the $87 it costs to avert a death by using a seat belt and the $88,000 it costs to avert a death by driver education.

The Data Problem

Critics of such statistics are quick to point out that the data used in many such calculations are unreliable. Recently, for example, Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger estimated that it would cost $150 million to introduce proposed safety standards for workers exposed to beryllium, a metal suspected of causing cancer, while industry sources put the amount at perhaps one-tenth that figure or less. The Energy Department itself later characterized the figure as "a gross estimate based on rule of thumb."

In defense of using data, though, it should be noted that many estimates are not that gross and that others could be improved without much additional cost. For instance, the data about the ill effects of automobiles and cigarettes are quite reliable. Moreover, even if the figures are off by 20 to 30 percent or more, they still provide a useful "first approximation" and help to tell us which actions would be less costly and more beneficial, which more expensive and save fewer lives.

The development and use of such data by itself, of course, cannot solve our problems in this area. There is alos a need to directly ease the costs of providing healthier and safer lives. In general, more reliance on public education (via product labeling, posters in shops and schools) and on economic incentives and disincentives seems to be a trend of the future.

Another possibility is to set up a special fund for each leading industry, into which a levy of, say, a nickel for every $10 of sales would be channeled. The money could finance transitions to safer products, workplaces and environments. In this way, companies which suddenly find their product excessively harmful would be less tempted to insist on selling out their current stock (of, say, unsafe tires), because their dangerous products could be bought out by the fund. Beyond that, the fund could be used to compensate stockholders for the costs of converting a plant, and workers of the expense of retraining or transfering, which such adaptations may entail.

Defining the Choices

There is, of course, no precise way of measuring how much more the public is willing to pay for a safer, healthier life via higher prices or taxes, or by indirect drag on economic growth and loss of jobs. In part this is because most Americans prefer to deal with these matters one at a time rather than get entangled with highly complex, emotion-laden general guidelines. In part it is also because the answer depends on changing economic conditions. Obviously, people are willing to buy more safety in prosperity than in recession.

But the choices involved cannot even seriously begin to be made by policymakers and the public unless we have information comparing ways in which we can best protect the largest number of lives. The more such data become available, however crude they may be, the more the public can favor a sensible investment of whatever resources are set aside for social progress, the more we will realize that the choices are between paying, say, for the protection of snail darters for greater avoidance of air collisions.

If we are unwilling to make such calculations, we may end up being mired in a phantom debate about a risk-free society, defined by small and strident groups who do not reflect the general public's view.

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