What is the Cost of a Human Life?

There is an article in the Wall Street Journal today (page A4 in the print edition) about balancing lives vs. regulations. The central question is what cost do we place on a human life? If we can implement regulations costing 3 million dollars per life saved, is that worth it? Also, should all lives be equally valuable?

Some highlights:

Mr. Viscusi argues that using a flat value discriminates against young people. A study he conducted puts a $7 million value on a human life. But applying that figure to both the 12-year old saved by an auto-safety rule and the 70-year old whose life has been slightly prolonged by clean-air rules "creates a severe inequity," he says.

Mr. Viscusi and a British economist, Michael Jones-Lee, have conducted surveys that they contend show that older people tend to discount the value of their own lives.

In my opinion, this is the type of tough question that has no good answer. We would like to say human life has an infinite value, but if we really believed that, then we could take all sorts of drastic steps to end needless deaths (like banning cars and cigarettes and fattening foods). Of course, we may be heading that way…