We often hear people repeat the platitude that “a human life is priceless.” But how true is that? Maybe in some spiritual sense, where resources and time are infinite, is a human soul also infinitely valuable in the eyes of the creator. But we live in the physical world where time and resources are not infinite. And since resources and time in the real world are not infinite it only follows that the value of an individual life is also not infinite, at least in terms of time and resources. This, then, begs the question: How much is a human life worth?
The answer, of course, is that it depends. Economics 101, at least of the Austrian School, teaches us that value is subjective. Therefore, the value of each individual is subjective only in regards to that of other individuals. This is a very important subject that I hope anarchists will start to incorporate into their worldviews. Let us explore some examples now.
Imagine two people come down with some life threatening illness. The cost of the operation to save them is $50,000. One of these people is your significant other. The second person is a complete stranger. Would you pony up the money to save your lover? Since I cannot answer for others, I will simply say that I would. Yes. But if somebody asked me to pay $50,000 of my own money for some random stranger, the answer would be no. Plain and simple. I frankly do not value the lives of strangers equally to that of my wife.
Notice how I wrote above that I cannot answer for others? This is an important distinction. Many other people, when asked whether or not they would pay $50,000 to save their spouse or partner, would answer no. This has nothing to do with cruelty. Imagine two married people, well into their 90’s. A $50,000 operation might only stave off death for a few more months. The person therefore sees no point in depriving their children of $50,000 worth of inheritance to delay the inevitable.
So, since each individual’s life is only valuable subjectively to other individuals, we cannot project our valuation of an individual’s life onto others. In other words, I may value my wife to the point of being willing to lay down $50,000 for an operation, but that doesn’t mean that you would value my wife’s life to the point of $50,000.
We live in a world where every individual has a value to every other individual.
Some individuals I value highly. I would be willing to fork over large chunks of money to save certain people. Other people actually have a negative value to me.
That’s an interesting concept that most people, including many libertarians, aren’t quite ready to accept. Some people have negative value.
How do we react to people we value negatively? Generally speaking, when one individual negatively values another, they’d be willing to pay money to see them dead or incapacitated. Now, most people don’t say that, but that’s how the world works.
Think about all of the drug-warriors out there. They actually negatively value drug users so much that they’d be willing to pay for them to be locked up. What about war hawks? They negatively value the enemy so much that they’d be willing to pay for them to be killed.
And everybody has their price. If you asked me how much I’d pay to have some evil dictator killed, I might say $100. How much would I pay to see a criminal who murdered my family member? I might even pay $10,000.
As much as we libertarians like to moralize the world, it could be that we’re really just subconsciously in tune with the true costs of actions more than others. Sure, I might negatively value certain middle-easterners each to the tune of $0.01. They’re insane religious fanatics who want to enslave or kill me. But they’re also on the other side of the planet. If the federal government wants to wage war on them it’s going to cost me $0.05 per death, or about $0.04 more than I negatively value them. Would-be criminals closer to home, however, I might negatively value at $10.00 per head.
One of the problems with the state is that it removes the pricing mechanism from our valuation of the lives of others. Socialized medicine, war, police protection, etc. all force people to pay for the edcuation of strangers, the capturing and killing of strangers, etc. in ways that are out of tune with our individual valuations.
So, what can we take away from this realization? For starters, it helps me to empathize with the valuations of others. My life simply isn’t very valuable to most people. And neither is yours. Unless you bring value to others somehow, you’re not likely going to be valued. Musicians, actors, inventors, and yes, even religious leaders and politicians are often highly valued. My employer probably values my life a lot less than I value his. I’m much more expendable to him than he is to me. No use getting melodramatic about it. Simple acceptance is key.
But after you come to an honest valuation of your life in regards to others, be honest about your valuation of others as well. Next time you see some innocent get their life ended by the police, ask yourself how much you would have paid personally to save their life. Next time you see somebody who you’d like to see dead, or incapacitated, ask yourself how much you’d pay for it. What if the cost of killing them were less than housing them in prison for a long time? Is that a case for the “death penalty?”
It’s these sorts of questions that lead to other sorts of questions. Does hiring assassins make sense now? How many people would willingly pay money to house a criminal in prison if given the choice between death, imprisonment, or simply setting them free? Would prisons become work-camps for criminals to pay off restitution to their victims in an anarcho-capitalist society, or would assassination be more cost-effective? How much can a criminal expect to fetch from their
family members to pay for restitution in order to save their life? Is it reasonable to expect others to not “snitch” to save their own life? Many questions might make us uncomfortable. But anarchists should be after the truth, even if it’s inconvenient.
There are two main things that I take from the realization that the value of a life is subjective. First, there’s no point in losing sleep over all of the strangers in the world that are getting victimized by other strangers. Truth be told, I value their lives far less than I value my own. Second, since nobody in the world values my own life as much as I do, I have the greatest incentive to secure my well being. I value my life a lot. If I had children or grandchildren, there might be a case to be made that I’d rather die than give up everything I own to save my own life. But I do not. Therefore, I’d likely spend every last penny to save my skin.
The state knows this. That’s why most people prefer to pay taxes rather than go to jail. If anarchists expect others to fall on their sword for principle, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. The only way we’re going to end the state is when the risk versus reward ratio is favorable. People are not going to risk their own life disobeying the institution that destroys the lives of people they do not know or highly value.