“If it saves just one life…”

Sorry, I got busy yesterday and didn’t get a post up.

The title quote is an argument, along with its close relative “if we don’t do this, people will die” that gets crammed down our throats in order to pass some policy to either pick our pockets or restrict out freedoms.  Don’t you want to save lives?  How heartless can you be?

The problem, of course, is that they never talk about the cost.  This is very much a “the seen vs. the unseen” situation.  Like I brought up elsewhere, that’s a popular argument in the gun control debate.  If banning guns just saves one life… However, what they don’t look at is how many lives banning guns would cost–the crime averted, that never happened, because a person was armed even if the gun was never fired.

When somebody makes a “security” or a “safety” proposal and someone objects to the cost people are suddenly, “how dare you talk about crass economics when people’s lives are at stake!  Any amount of money is worth it to keep people safe.  If it saves just one life…”

Except nobody, given a choice actually acts that way.  Consider anyone who buys a car.  If they were really worried about safety, they’d want a car with an automatic fire suppression system such as that used in Formula One race cars installed.  They’d want a NASCAR qualified roll cage, a five point harness with arm and head restraints.  They’d make sure they wear a Snell certified helmet (current certification) and a flame retardant nomex suit every time they got in that car.  And that’s not even the end of it.  One could add armoring including bullet resistant windows, extra reinforcement against collisions, safety-wiring (another racing trick) every fastener in the car so nothing can possibly shake loose, and so on and so on.  And you can’t blame the auto manufacturers for not providing that safety equipment in the cars they sell.  It’s all available aftermarket if someone thinks his or her own life is worth “any cost.”  Almost nobody does that on the car they drive to and from work and the grocery store.  And anyone who did would be looked at as a kook.

Or look at health.  Yes, people want to be healthy, but how many people keep a year’s supply of bandages on hand, medications against any conceivable malady that might strike, ensure that there are always at least three EMT qualified people at any gathering they attend, make sure that they, themselves are EMT qualified?

There comes a point where people decide that they are safe enough, they are healthy enough, their various risks are low enough that putting more into getting that much more is just not worth it.

Thus, “anything is worth it if it saves just one life” is simply not a valid argument when people don’t even act like that when it’s their own life.

But the failure of that argument does not stop there.  When you’re dealing with scarce resources that have alternative uses, the resources you spend on that are no longer available for doing other things.  While spending resources on this or that can save lives, there’s another thing that can save lives:  prosperity.  People tend to live longer, with better health, in prosperous nations than in poor nations.  Prosperous nations have more hospitals.  The hospitals are better equipped.  They have better transportation and emergency services to get the sick or injured to care more quickly.  They generally have better supplies of food and water.  They have better sanitation.  In cases of natural disasters that same transportation that can get sick and injured to care can also be used to bring relief supplies to the stricken.  And so on and so on and so on.

There are studies that purport to show that X millions of dollars of national income equates to Y lives saved.  The exact numbers are not really my purpose here, just the idea that prosperity also saves lives.

The thing to remember is there are no absolute solutions.  There are only tradeoffs.  And what is “obvious” about a proposal is often only the smallest part of the actual effects.  Like an iceberg, most of the threat lies hidden.

Since we do not live in a perfect world, people will die no matter what we do.  The emotion-laden “cause” which seeks to prevent some people from dying will, almost certainly, lead to other people dying.  And, particularly, “that will hurt the economy” is a valid answer to “if it saves one life” because prosperity also saves lives.

And if you hurt the economy, then people will die.

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