Jonathan Swift Redux?

Bryan Caplan seems to be muscling in on Jonathan Swift‘s literary territory: satire. Consider Caplan’s post “Murder Equivalents“:

Economists’ [sic] have long struggled to get non-economists to put a dollar value on human life.  We’ve almost completely failed.  No matter how high the dollar value you use, non-economists hear callous minimization of human suffering.  Is there any way to quantify the magnitude of Awful without seeming awful yourself?

I say there is.  From now on, let us measure each horror in “Murder Equivalents.”  The Murder Equivalent of X, by definition, is the number of ordinary murders that would be just as bad as X.  The concept allows for the reasonable possibility that some deaths are less bad than a normal murder.  The Murder Equivalent of an accidental death, for example, might only be .5  The concept also allows for the reasonable possibility than some deaths are worse than a normal murder.  The Murder Equivalent for a death by terrorism, for example, might be 2.  A terrible war that lays a country waste might be twice the number of deaths from war crimes, plus the number of civilian deaths, plus .5 times the number of soldier deaths, plus one per $10 M in property damage.

Logically, this re-scaling is no better than a sophisticated Value of Life calculation.  Psychologically, however, it’s far better.  Comparing something to murder doesn’t sound callous.  Nor does it minimize the badness.  It only puts the world in perspective.  Many salacious front-page horror headlines are clearly less bad than one murder.  Thinking in terms of Murder Equivalents would help diffuse such distractions, reducing the risk of costly crusades against relatively minor problems.

Yes, I know that many people will angrily reject any metric that potentially implies their gut emotional reactions are unreasonable.  As usual, I’m working at the margin.  How can we get more people to think numerately about the horrors of the world?  Murder Equivalents is the best idea I’ve got.

Caplan’s modest proposal is Swiftian, even if it’s not meant to be. I refer, of course, to Dean Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, wherein the author (an Anglo-Irishman) “suggests that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies.”

Numerate thinking about the horrors of the world seems to belong in a category with Swift’s idea. Why, pray tell, is thinking numerately about the horrors of the world an improvement on thinking emotionally about them? An emotional reaction to horror is a valid reaction. Murder and terrorism are abhorrent, and ought not be smoothed over by equating them with accidental death or death by old age. Yet, that’s what Caplan’s cold-blooded alternative invites.

Death by old age is death by old age; death by accident is death by accident; death by murder or terrorism is neither, and can’t be calibrated with either of them by an arbitrarily assigned coefficient. Murder is an intentional act that can be deterred and avenged. (The best way yet devised of deterring murder is by executing murderers, swiftly (no pun intended) and surely. Not only does execution send a “message” to would-be murderers, many of whom will heed it, but it prevents murderers from murdering again.) Terrorism is an intentional act that can be prevented, deterred, and avenged, it’s not just another “risk” — like being struck by lightning — as some fatuous economists would have it. Murder and terrorism are not merely death by accident or old age with higher coefficients.

In any event, how would the coefficient (relative value) of death by murder or terrorism be assigned? By a know-it-all professor of economics like Bryan Caplan? Even a first-year student of economics could tell you that the only meaningful relative value is the one that results from a market exchange between a willing seller (the prospective victim) and a willing buyer (the prospective murderer). In a word: price. The problem (for Caplan) is that every murder would have a different price, and a lot of murders would have a price of infinity, because the prospective victims would be unwilling to be murdered at any price.