What Is A Man, What Has He Got?

The tricky valuation of human lives


In case you missed it, there was some kind of an earthquake in Pakistan over the weekend. Saturday's 7.6 quake in Kashmir devastated a region already steeped in romance and tragedy, producing a loss of life that will almost certainly dwarf Hurricane Katrina's grim toll. And yet it's been—well it hasn't been ignored: The news media have been primed by a year of record-setting natural disasters, and have done an admirable job of bringing news of the catastrophe to Americans.

But the Kashmir quake has had less of a grip on American attention than the Katrina aftermath, Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court, and a story about yahoo cops whaling on New Orleans' most famous teetotaler. Even one of the now-standard post-disaster rituals—the denunciation of one's ideological opponents who have scandalously ignored the catastrophe—has been remarkably subdued. When the U.K. Independent went looking for condemnations of the West's shabby quake response, the paper turned up only an academic, a fanatical Islamist, and the undocumented guesses at the local mood that fill up the vacuum in stories like this.

It's more than just an example of Stalin's distinction between tragedies and statistics. It's almost as if American lives had greater intrinsic value than Indian or Pakistani lives.

Which is almost certainly true, if you leave out the word intrinsic. Ironically, while most of us accept the concept of relative value as it applies to real estate or gas prices, hardly anybody will accept it in the case where it is most consistently practiced: the valuation of human lives. If this idea seems monstrous, that's in part for the same reason Stalin's quote is monstrous: because it's obviously true. I should be ashamed that the death of Nipsey Russell affected me more deeply than the Kashmir earthquake, and in a sense I am. But everybody makes these distinctions all the time: Citizens are valued more highly than aliens, family members above strangers, co-religionists above heathens, people you've heard of over people you haven't. Politically advantageous deaths evoke more sympathy than politically embarrassing ones; a death with a particularly moving or ironic or horrifying story arc is more notable than a death that just happens. Only in some sphere of platonic abstraction where nobody lives (or dies) does every life have equal value.

Figuring out the specific value of a human life is a venerable tradition. The very act of agreeing on payments of blood money or wergeld implied an attempt to assign values, usually unequal values, to individual lives. Contemporary Iran has a fairly sophisticated structure of compensations for death, and Iranian Jews and Christians hailed the decision, a few years back, to do away with unequal blood money rates for Muslims and non-Muslims.

Compensation structures in the United States lack even that bigoted logic. Malcontents have advanced a variety of theories as to why the victims of Hurricane Katrina (probably) won't get the same compensation as victims of terrorist attacks, or why the families of Oklahoma City bombing victims weren't eligible for the vast windfall that came to the families of 9/11 victims. But the reality may be more disturbing, because it's more contingent and chaotic.

In the comparable cases of 9/11 and Oklahoma City, for example, compensations varied widely thanks to the 9/11 fund—which was itself a largely accidental creation. "It wasn't that any group of lawmakers said we'll provide compensation to this group but not that one," explains Lester Brickman, professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of law at Yeshiva University. "It was a combination of the circumstances—the nationalization, if you will—of the New York event, the gigantic scale of the loss of life, and the issue of the liability of America's airlines, which hung precariously in the balance in the days after 9/11. All those elements combined to make a taxpayer-funded compensation system an idea whose time had come. There was an issue with the airlines which was critical: They were teetering on verge of shutting down because insurers weren't willing to insure them, and they insisted government bail them out. So the idea was to save the airlines, but to insulate them from liability."

In the event, a handful of victims' families rejected even the payouts from the multi-billion-dollar compensation fund, and the fund's existence has raised serious questions about whether future terrorist attacks will produce similar efforts. Even within the fund, there are controversies about relative compensation. "For bond traders and other extraordinarily affluent individuals," says Walter Olson, author of The Rule of Lawyers and founder of Overlawyered.com, "taxpayers paid out amounts that were far in excess of what ordinarily would be applied for compensation. Why should it be that just because this person didn't take out life insurance, taxpayers should be paying out huge amounts of money? And why should you have a situation where a poor family gets a compensation that's nice for the poor family, but the family of a bond trader gets millions? The situation is the opposite of something like social insurance, where there would be a cap to the amount of money you can get."

If lives are given unequal values in the United States, the discrepancies are immense when you compare Americans with non-Americans. "It's not just a question of affluence. There is a predictable and very strong trend of lives being valued more highly in affluent countries, but no other country pays out the kind of compensation the United States does."

That may be another reason why people still want to come here, though sometimes even that isn't necessary. "If you take the example of crashes of international jetliners, you have paradox that's pretty hard to justify," says Olson. "People can sue in America if, for example, their ticket was purchased in America or was arranged by an American travel agency. American courts have very liberal rules on jurisdiction, so long as people can find some American angle. So there's a transatlantic premium even for foreign nationals; if you can get into our courts, you'll get a lot more money than your sister who was sitting in the seat next to you, just because she arranged her flight tour through another travel agency."

In the case of compensation for victims of the Bhopal disaster (which was appallingly low by U.S. standards), ambitious attorneys tried unsuccessfully to move the venue to the United States, where damages would have been much higher. Similarly, the uninhibited ambulance chaser John Burris tried to cash in on the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies by finding litigious Kenyan and Tanzanian nationals connected to the tragedy.

It's easy to ridicule globe trotting personal injury lawyers. (It's also unlikely they'll get much juice out of the Kashmir quake, where evidence of American liability is going to be hard to find at best.) But maybe these bottom-feeders are the de facto clergy at the endless funeral that is human life—the people who remind us that all lives have value. Since money has always one of the ways of establishing that value, obtaining great rewards for the meek and downtrodden could really be viewed as the lord's work. It's one thing to go around claiming any man's death diminishes me, believing that after the first death there is no other; but only a true believer could prove in a court of law that a Pakistani farmer is no less valuable than a Cantor Fitzgerald high roller.

Or maybe not. It's unlikely any Indians or Pakistanis are right now measuring their loved ones' value by how much attention Americans are paying to them. Nor should the remoteness of the catastrophe prevent you from helping out if you choose. But national and global tragedies are reminders of many things, one of which is that there really are no national or global tragedies. Only personal tragedies—and sometimes many of them at once.

Tim Cavanaugh is Reason's web editor.