longshot contributor badgeA couple weeks back, I compiled a little infographic for Longshot Magazine. And they took it! Thus the badge embedded here.

I put together a chart of examples through history of the price tag we’ve put on human life. The chart isn’t online, but you can see it if you buy the magazine, formatted with that digital-looking font you see on receipts. The published version is shortened and formatted for the magazine, but if you’re curious about the rough version I turned in, you can see it below.

Not wanting to leave well enough alone, I also got in touch with David Friedman. Friedman is a professor at Santa Clara University’s law school and a self-described “anarchist-anachronist-economist.” He teaches this class that looks incredibly interesting called Legal Systems Very Different From Ours. A section of it is on ancient Iceland, and his 1978 paper on Iceland’s legal and political institutions during the saga era was the source for one of the weregild figures in the chart.

We’re constantly making decisions that value life, whether we realize it or not. That’s an inherent aspect of the risks we take on a daily basis, whether it’s jaywalking (value of time saved vs risk of getting hit by a bus) or digging into that second slice of pie. What’s more, we’re constantly applying values to the lives of others, such as in the cost-benefit analyses of safety and regulations.

“People are often uncomfortable with the idea of giving life a finite value,” says Friedman, “But if they really believed the value of their own live was infinite they would weigh less, drive more carefully, adjust their behavior in lots of ways that give up other values in order to reduce the risk of dying.”

And he argues that price isn’t, by definition, infinite: “If you imagine someone trying to buy all of your life now–your heart for transplant, say–it seems unlikely that you would sell. But the reason is not that your life is infinitely valuable but that the money you would be paid with is worthless to a corpse, which is what you will be after selling your life.”

You really can’t take it with you.

Not that others can’t use it after you’re gone. Friedman added an interesting point about how we calculate awards in death lawsuits: when somebody’s survivors are awarded money after a death, the figure fails to include the value of the life to the person who died.

How much would somebody have to pay you for your own life? It may not be infinite, but it would certainly be substantial, right?

“Modern law gets it strikingly wrong by ignoring the largest part of the value of most lives–their value to the person whose life it is,” he says. “Under traditional common law, that value could not be sued for because the claim died with the claimant. Modern survivor statutes allow other people, such as the victim’s family, to sue for the cost to them of his death, but still leave out the cost to him of his death. Well, that’s the figure that’s left out, the value that’s lost, in a settlement.”


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