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Here’s an all-time dumbass bromide: “If it saves only one life, it’s worth it.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said it last week in a bit of sanctimonious posturing intended for consumption by the unthinking. A variant on this is, “You can’t put a value on a human life,” and Cuomo said that too. But of course we do that every day. Yes, we weigh lives against costs, and we must. Each and every decision involving any personal or public health risk entails an implicit and sometimes explicit valuation of human life. There are few costless decisions in a world of scarce resources, and lives are often one of those costs. These might be matters of probability in an ex ante sense, which might make it more palatable. Ex post, they add up to real lives.

Imagine a world in which we spared no expense to save lives. We’d shift massive resources into health care to the detriment of all production and consumption that does not save lives. No precaution would be too conservative. No driving or biking, because those prohibitions would save many lives. Many risky construction and maintenance jobs would be off limits. No smoking, of course, and no drinking! No chips! Every BMI greater than 25 and you’re off to mandatory fat camp. Sadly, the effort to save a life is sometimes fruitless, but as long as there’s a chance, we’d try and try, providing mechanical life support to every patient hanging on by a tattered thread. No, we don’t do these things because it’s too damn costly.

We face an infinite number of tradeoffs in medical care and in public health more generally. The question “Who Shall Live?” must be answered every day when deciding how health care resources are to be allocated. No matter how you answer that question, certain lives will be lost as the cost of meeting your preferred medical objectives. You can’t meet them all. Resources are scarce — or in more everyday language, budgets are tight.

So human life is often assigned an implicit or shadow value in decision making. But even explicit assignment of economic value to human life is not uncommon. Valuing lives is a standard practice in cost-benefit analysis. It’s also quite common for life values to be estimated as part of forensic analyses in support of legal proceedings.

Andrew Cuomo surely knows all this. That makes his statements all the more disingenuous. This article in The Nation from the end of March implies that Cuomo has valued life all too cheaply in light of his past budget proposals for health care programs. Along the same lines, see this eye-opening critique of the policies Cuomo has pursued that left NY poorly prepared for a pandemic. And now, he’d like to keep his costly lockdown order in place even if it saves “just one life”.

Beyond all that, Cuomo is a stupendous hypocrite, asserting that life is too precious to spare any expense after signing an order in March requiring nursing homes to accept individuals with active Covid infections. Nursing homes have been the very hottest of spots for Covid infections and deaths, so the order was glaringly dismissive in valuing the lives of vulnerable nursing home residents. The rationale for the order was to save hospital beds, but there was no shortage. 

In fairness, Cuomo was also clamoring for assistance to add hospital capacity. Millions were spent to convert the Javits Center to a temporary field hospital and to bring a U.S. Navy hospital ship up the Hudson, but they went almost completely unused. Why not send the elderly patients there, instead of back to the nursing homes?

Finally, he pouted for weeks about his state’s shortage of ventilators, only to quickly reverse course as it became apparent that the state had a surplus of ventilators.

Recently, Cuomo felt it necessary to demonstrate his anti-Western bona fides by labeling the coronavirus the “European Virus“. He must think that’s a clever poke in the eye to those who prefer “Wuhan Virus”, though it is quite correct (and not the least bit “racist”) to note that the virus originated in Wuhan, China. For what it’s worth, the genome of the European strain, like the others that hit New York, differs by less than 12 out of 30,000 base-pairs of DNA from the original Wuhan strain. And of course the New York metropolitan area has made a massive contribution to the U.S. case load and death toll from the virus. Travelers from New York did much to spread Covid-19 to the rest of the country. So, as some have suggested, perhaps a better name might be “New York Virus”.

Andrew Cuomo is nothing if not a politician, and I suppose he’s just behaving like one. I probably wouldn’t gripe were it not for the minions who fall for Cuomo’s sham virtue. But it’s worse than that: the claim that public intervention at any cost is worthwhile if it saves “just one life” is a deeply statist sentiment.