Bryan Caplan  

Murder Equivalents

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Economists are often accused of believing that everything - health, happiness, life itself - can be measured in money. What we actually believe is even odder. We believe that everything can be measured in anything. --David Friedman, Hidden Order

Economists' 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.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Dangerman writes:

"Many salacious front-page horror headlines are clearly less bad than one murder."

Any particular examples in mind?

Thomas writes:

It's Swiftian, even if it's not meant to be. I like it because -- as a proponent of capital punishment -- it allows me to say that 1 execution offsets 1 murder. Oh, wait, how can that be? There's no way to offset a murder, unless the victim and his loved ones agree in advance to allow the murder in exchange for $X. But every murder would have a different price, and a lot of them would have a price of infinity, representing the victims and loved ones who actually believe that one can't put a price on life. So, as I say, it's Swiftian -- not to be taken seriously by anyone who thinks seriously about such matters.

Cameron writes:

Funny, I'm in the middle of reading chapter 5 of Georg Simmel's The Philosophy of Money, which is titled "The Money Equivalent of Personal Values". He argues that people are actually more comfortable with giving life a definite monetary value in places where the money economy isn't very advanced – blood prices and bride prices, for example. That only seems repellent to us because (he argues) an advanced money economy is characterized by having purged money of any sacred or ceremonial significance, so money is incommensurable with anything we regard as sacred.

So in order to make them commensurable again, which is more feasible (and less dangerous) – resacralizing money or desacralizing life?

Lassi Uosukainen writes:

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Fazal Majid writes:

How about using the number of days of imprisonment for convicted criminals (actual days after parole, including time served, not nominal days at sentencing time)?

Brett C. writes:

That idea has a long history. The classic text is Selling and Wolfgang's "The measurement of delinquency", from 1964. A 1985 update, based on the responses of 60,000 interviewees, gets very specific: "A parent beats his young child with his fists. As a result, the child dies" gets a badness score of 47.8, whereas "A person robs a victim at gun-point. The victim struggles and is shot to death" gets a 43.2.

foosion writes:

There seem to be two issues in valuing human life, comparative value and absolute value.

Comparative value: spending $X on program A saves 100 lives, while spending it on program B saves 2 lives. Where should we spend?

Absolute value: Is it worth spending $Y to save one life?

Murder equivalent is useful for comparative value but less for absolute value.

One may argue the two analyses ultimately get to the same place, but that's more theoretical than realistic.

BrianH writes:

we seem to do this already with criminal law, by the length of sentences for various crimes....however, i have never understood the ratios of the prison sentences for different seems like a hodgepodge medley of numbers, each created when the various laws were passed, but without a view for the whole. Perhaps more economists should be reviewing and giving recommendations for sentencing

Thomas Knapp writes:

I agree with the other Thomas that this must be Swiftian.

"Even Robinson Crusoe, when he has to make a decision where no ready judgment of value appears and where he has to construct one upon the basis of a more or less exact estimate, cannot operate solely with subjective use value, but must take into consideration the intersubstitutability of goods on the basis of which he can then form his estimates. In such circumstances it will be impossible for him to refer all things back to one unit."

There just really isn't any commensurable characteristic between lives and other things which would answer for defining "murder equivalents."

Thomas Knapp writes:

Doh -- left out the source on that quote -- Ludwig von Mises, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commontwealth. Sorry about that.

John Alcorn writes:

@ BrianH & Brett C.,

Paul H. Robinson (UPenn Law) provides an empirical overview & normative assessment of offense grading in criminal law. See his fascinating book, Intuitions of Justice & the Utility of Desert, at Chapter 16, "Principles of Adjudication: Doctrines & Grading."

Prof. Robinson finds that lay judgments about offense grading are more nuanced than criminal-law codes. He also identifies specific disagreements between lay judgment and criminal-law codes; for example, disagreements about (a) what factors are causally relevant to grading an offense as forcible rape, (b) the boundaries of felony murder and felony manslaughter, & (c) how much to punish multiple offenses.

BTW, Prof. Robinson was interviewed on EconTalk about another fascinating book, Pirates, Prisoners, & Lepers: Lessons from Life outside the Law.

Michael Savage writes:

Another solution is to use hours. We can put a dollar value on an abstract 'hour', ignoring that actual people's time is not equally valuable. Either assume one life is worth ~700k hours, or make assumption about time remaining. Either approach would improve reasoning. I think Tim Harford suggested this.

Hazel Meade writes:

I like it.
Instead of using a dollar as a unit of measure, you use life as a unit of measure. This is much better philosophically since dollars are really just stores of value anyway. What a dollar is "worth" is subjective - depends on what you can exchange it for, and some things you can't buy with money. The ultimate value is life itself, so it's better to measure things in terms of life than in terms of value.

Indeed, one could even use it to measure all sorts of other things in terms of life-equivalency. Like the "cost" of a prison-term (ten years = 0.15 lifetimes, say), or the cost of being denied the right to work in a given occupation (0.2 lives, maybe). One could measure the impacts of various government regulatory policies in terms of denied opportunity or denied right-to-pursue-happiness in life-equivalencies, which would put a much more human face on the impact of government regulation.

JL writes:

In health economics, a commonly used metric for comparing different outcomes is quality adjusted life years (QALYs):

Khodge writes:

There are political restraints to putting a price on life and suffering, especially trial lawyers, one of the largest lobby. Any rational discussion of the real cost of pain, suffering, and death reduces what they can sue for, reducing their contingency fee.

After the Democrats in Colorado gained control of the legislature and governor, TV ads for personal injury lawyers skyrocketed. I haven't researched the matter but it's long been known that lawyers have the Democrat party in their back pocket.

Philo writes:

The death of a person, rather than his murder, would be easier to evaluate. Death--that is, loss of life--is only part of the disvalue of the typical murder; there is also the non-zero probability that the perpetrator is getting away with murder, and will be encouraged to kill again, and that his success will encourage others. In short, a successful murder increases the probability of further murders. Also, if the perpetrator does not get away with it, he will be (tried and) punished--a further bad result. These complications are avoided if we work simply with deaths as the unit of value. But it seems obvious that the disvalue of a loss of life is a function of the length of life that would (counterfactually) have been enjoyed had the death not occurred. So a more basic unit of value would be the loss of some temporal unit life--perhaps of one year of life. (This, of course, would have to be averaged across the entire human population, since it also seems obvious that people vary considerably in the value their lives have, to them and also to other people.) But the shorter this temporal unit, the more it will seem (to people who think with their emotions) that we are minimizing the importance of whatever we are measuring. So for rhetorical purposes one might want to propose as a unit of value something like the disvalue of eighty years of (average, ordinary) human life.

Any rational approach to value will be objectionable to irrationalists, but you do well to look for rhetorical strategies that will minimize these objections.

quadrupole writes:

Does this mean I can now quote the time wasted in a meeting in Murder Equivalents?

"The weekly staff meeting this quarter has cost us 0.25 Murder Equivalents, at this rate, I do not see how we can morally continue to have one in future quarters"

Philo writes:

(Evidently I meant:
"the value of eighty years of life,"
"the disvalue of losing eighty years of life.")

Garrett MacDonald writes:

I recall reading a particular philosophical paradox related to the value of a life that went something like this: what's worse, a single person being tortured for a decade, or a billion people getting a single grain of sand stuck in their eye? I think this sort of problem brings to light the issue of quantifying the value of life. I'm sure that those billion people would gladly pay up to a dollar each for some eye drops to fix their problem, but the idea of paying that same collective amount to save a single prisoner of war being tortured feels like too much. But really, shouldn't it be the opposite?

Philo writes:

@ Garrett MacDonald:

Bryan's idea is, roughly, to avoid the problem of valuing a human life by using the value of a life as the unit in terms of which to value everything else. But then the problem of comparative valuation would persist in reverse: What fraction of a human life is appropriate as a measure of the (dis)value of ten years of torture? How about the (dis)value of getting a grain of sand in your eye? Bryan's suggestion doesn't resolve the conceptual difficulty: its value is merely rhetorical.

Hazel Meade writes:


What fraction of a human life is appropriate as a measure of the (dis)value of ten years of torture?

I would answer something like, if the torture is sufficiently traumatizing that the person cannot live a normal life after wards, then the value is something close to one life-equivalent.

Basically, if you ruin someone's life completely by destroying their mental health, you've taken away their life the same as if you killed them.

Not sure why this doesn't resolve at least some of the problem. you haven't just reversed the unit of measure, you've switched to a unit of measure that captures intangible values that the other unit does not capture.

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