The Argument for Putting a Price on People’s Lives

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There are arguments out there that say we need to cover everything for everyone; that it’s immoral to ration care. Each human life is priceless, and choosing not to pay for a service that could save or prolong a life is trying to put a price on something that is priceless. It violates the moral test of government:

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Former U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey

I disagree. And having recently read The Road to Serfdom by Hayek, I’ll put it in his terms because he’s given the best explanation of the counter-argument.

If we spend all that money on healthcare and ignore all the other potential uses for that same money, we are making a huge spending decision without even being able to determine whether that money was put to its best use.

How about an example?

If a grandma has the choice to (1) spend $300,000 on cancer treatment that is likely to give her about two more months of life or (2) spend that same sum on 4 years of university tuition for her granddaughter who would not otherwise be able to afford university, what would she choose? Maybe some would choose to live two months longer, but I suspect most grandmothers would put a price on their own life by choosing a better use for that money.

I know–she’s getting to make the decision for herself, which is a very important difference. But I hope the principle is clear: Governments could choose to spend a huge portion of their limited resources on covering every single healthcare service for every single person, but that crowds out other virtuous options, such as school lunches for low-income kids, housing programs for the homeless, mental health treatment for incarcerated individuals, . . .

(Incidentally, in the context of the grandma’s decision, it seems better for the grandma herself to decide what’s best with the money, which is the same argument I have been giving all along that we should allow patients to bear directly some percentage of the cost differential between their various options.)

If we don’t let micro- and macro-considerations of the alternative uses of limited resources enter into our economic decisions, we are headed down the same road that all planned economies in the past have traveled.

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