Economizing Life and Death

Have you ever sat at the deathbed of a statistical life? “Statistical lives” are what politicians save, or let die, or kill, when they decide on resource allocations for health care.

Health care is not the only area where political decisions are matters of life and death. Environmental programs to reduce air pollution, educational efforts to publicize the adverse effects of smoking, traffic measures that lower the risk of car accidents: many policies save lives – and omit other lives that would have been saved if the money had been spent otherwise.

So, if you have ever sat at somebody’s deathbed, the answer may very well be yes: you sat at the deathbed of a statistical life.

Even so, we say that John died from cancer, not that he died from a policy decision to stop payment for cancer screening. We say that Mary died in a car accident, not that she was a casualty of the Road Traffic Act. In short, we do not usually identify policy decisions as the causes of individual deaths.