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Shared Public Lies

Sometimes it feels easier to believe in lies than to take an honest look at things the way they are. When that is the case, it is as though, as a society, we publicly sanction a lie. The following is an example of one such lie.

If It Saves One Life It's Worth It

The lie that some new regulation or action is worth it if it saves one life is just a pleasant thought, usually with no relation to reality. It may or may not be worth it, depending on the cost. You can rightfully put unlimited value on your own life. However, all actions to save others lives have to take into account the real cost.

For example, as a nation we could save 45,000 lives by strictly limiting highway speeds to 20 miles per hour (lets be honest - dying from an accident at that speed is rare). Permanently revoking the driver's license of anyone violating the limit would probably keep most people obeying it. Of course that would be too inconvenient for us. It is too high a price for us - even though it would likely save 45,000 lives.

The real question then, is this: How much is it actually worth to us to save a life? For example, if a new safety feature required by law in cars saves 200 lives per year, is it worth it to us to each pay $50 more? If 20 million cars are sold each year, this would be one billion dollars extra cost, or about 5 million dollars per life saved. Of course, we could decide that as a society we will pay just 3 million, or as much as 10 million.

When looked at in this honest way, more lives will be saved, because regulations will be aimed at maximum efficiency in achieving results. If there is a way to save 1,000 lives for a cost of just 100 million dollars, we would rationally choose that instead, because we could save more lives at a lower cost ($100,000 per life saved).

According to the lie, saving a life should have unlimited value to society. When people believe this, it is difficult to argue against inefficient regulations if they happen to save a life or two. All such regulations have a real cost, and if we impose a cost for less efficient safety regulations, we have the ability to save fewer lives. There is a limit to what we can do, after all. The lie ignores this at our peril.

Let's look at this another way. Suppose we were to decide that as a society we are willing to impose a cost of just x dollars (say 30 billion) per year on the economy or taxpayers in order to save lives. In this case it is natural to look for the ways that save the most lives with the money or economic strength available. This is much more rational, and will actually result in a safer society.

Unfortunately, the lie that "if it saves just one life it is worth it," is just one example of the many lies we tell ourselves as a society.


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