How much is a human life worth?

It’s a question that’s asked in every wrongful death case.

It’s also a question that’s asked when proposed regulations are evaluated.  The government weighs the cost of implementing the proposed regulation and the value of the lives it will save.

For a long time the government focused on how much people earned and equated their income to the value of their lives.

In the 1980s the government was trying to determine whether a potentially life-saving regulation was worth the cost of implementation.

The regulation would have required dangerous chemicals in the workplace to be labeled and for companies to have material safety data sheets indicating what to do if a worker was exposed to the chemical.

The regulation would save lives and work days lost to injury.  But it would also cost companies millions to implement.  Was it a good idea?  The answer boiled down to how to value the lives that might be saved.

Economist Kip Viscusi suggested using a model called the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) to help the government make a decision about the proposed regulation.

Viscusi determined about 1 in 10,000 Americans died on the job every year and that workers in dangerous jobs were willing to accept an extra $300 per year for the added risk.

That meant—in the 1980s—the VSL was $3M.  Today—adjusted for inflation and increased workplace safety—the VSL is about $10M.

There are a couple ways of looking at it.  But the one I like the best is to consider a roulette wheel with 9,999 “life” slots and 1 “death” slot.

How much would it take for you to agree to spin?

How about if it involved the life of your spouse, parent or child?

Under Viscusi’s model would $1,000 be enough?  Or do you value life at more than $10M?

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