Aging

When Every Life Is Precious

We value individual human lives more every day. That's (mostly) good news.

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The modern world is a mess of seeming contradictions. Children have never been safer, yet parents have never been more anxiously overprotective. We have more leeway than ever before to lead free, quirky, customized private lives, yet governments have unprecedented power to inspect and disrupt our most intimate activities. Fewer jets crashed in 2014 than since the advent of commercial air travel, yet CNN switches to wall-to-wall coverage every time a Boeing goes missing.

This collection of seemingly opposed notions actually shares a single throughline, one you can see running all over this special issue on aging. Human beings, as a species, are treating each individual as incredibly precious-much more so than we have in the past. This is a remarkable and transformative development, though it presents challenges and not a small amount of cognitive dissonance, particularly for the more libertarian among us.

Before the advent of modern medicine, birth control, and (in much of the developing world) economic prosperity, men and women produced batches of kids, knowing that some may die but enough would survive to take care of their parents and propagate the family line. Now more than half the world's people, including the 320 million of us in the United States, live in countries where the fertility rate-the average number of births per woman-is below the replacement level of 2.1. Mexican women averaged 7.3 births in 1960; today that number is 2.2. India in the 1970s was widely projected to suffer from mass starvation due to overpopulation; now it is on the verge of sinking below the replacement rate.

We know what happens in economic terms when goods become scarce. Prices and valuations go up, and owners invest more in upkeep and maintenance. The same is now happening with people, with mostly good but sometimes challenging side effects.

Take war. Every day I walk past a memorial in my local park commemorating 187 men from my neighborhood alone who died in World War I. That's only 71 fewer U.S. military deaths than in the entire 1991 Gulf War.

While the staunchest anti-interventionists among us may feel a sense of constant fatigue and dismay, the fact is that there is less war and less war-death than ever. In the year of reason's birth, 1968, more U.S. military personnel died in Vietnam-16,592-than have died in every subsequent American military adventure combined. It is inconceivable that we would tolerate the idea of 36,000 Americans dying in a foreign nation's three-year civil war, as happened on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s. And our reluctance to take on casualties pales in comparison to the reluctance in less-interventionist Western countries.

The downside is that ever higher premiums on life create opportunities to exploit emotional overreactions to discrete incidents. The United States right now is waging a low-intensity war against the Islamic State (ISIS) within Syria in large part because ISIS terrorists beheaded a couple of American hostages.

Governments that do not value the lives of human beings end up treating them like pawns and cannon fodder. It's no accident that many of the most effective opponents of totalitarianism were iconoclastic individualists like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik. And yet, as the Russian chess champion-turned-dissident Garry Kasparov reminds us ("Checking Putin," page 48), success in the West has led to a crippling aversion to risk taking. America essentially gave up space exploration for two generations out of an excessive sense of caution.

Valuing human life begins in the mirror, and as Ronald Bailey notes in his cover story ("Eternal Youth for All!," page 22), this is driving a self-interested collection of pioneer thinkers and scientists to tackle the aging process head-on. One anxiety about that, explored in David Goldhill's masterful review of Atul Gawande's book Being Mortal ("Dying and in Denial," page 56), is that older people will just stretch out the dying process in ways that are dehumanizing and expensive. What to do about this conundrum?

"Pervasive change," Goldhill argues, "can only start with recognizing that today's incentives point away from more personalized, more sensitive, and more humane medicine." This is mostly due to the centralized, government-mandated, 800-pound gorilla of Medicare. "Medicare, as our surrogate, has unleashed a torrent of unnecessary care, accidental death, and inattention to the personal needs of the patient." In the rest of the economy, he notes, "we use markets and actual consumers to drive diversity of choice and service. If we want the benefits of personalized care-not just end-of-life care, but all care-we'll need to bring these same incentives into medicine."

Growing valuation of the individual is driving everything from medical innovation to the creation of unofficial currencies (see Andrea Castillo's "Private Money in Virtual Worlds," page 67). But those more fearful of selfishness have reason to cheer, too. Notable skeptic Michael Shermer argues provocatively ("Are We Becoming Morally Smarter?," page 42) that great leaps forward in abstract reasoning are leading not only to better performance on IQ tests (producing the famous "Flynn effect"), but also greater moral empathy for our fellow man and woman.

"Abstract reasoning leads us to consider members of other tribes (nations) as potential trading partners to be respected rather than as potential enemies to be conquered or killed," Shermer writes. We have "improved in our capacity to lump blacks and whites, men and women, straights and gays into the category 'human.'"

Progress on these fronts doesn't always move in a straight line. Understandable outrage over the 9/11 attacks prompted too many Americans to embrace as a counter-weapon the inherently dehumanizing weapon of torture, a moral detour from which we have yet to fully return (see Jacob Sullum's "Torture As an Absolute Wrong," page 14). Then again, as Sara Mayeux notes in "Cruel, Unusual, and Crowded" (page 71), we are on the verge of a long-overdue prison-reform movement in this country attributable directly to the growing sentiment that even convicted criminals are individuals worthy of at least some human dignity.

One of the most moving-but ultimately self-defeating-slogans to come out of last summer's Ferguson mess was "black lives matter." It was an immediately relatable reminder of the value of human life, and the callousness with which some from less-favored classes are treated. But it sadly morphed into a tool of alienation rather than empathy, as when Smith College President Kathleen McCartney felt compelled to walk back her campus-wide reminder that "all lives matter" (italics added). McCartney was right: Conferring individual dignity on every human category is how we arrive more rapidly at a more just and free world.

There's a reason why the enlightened world erupted spontaneously with the slogan "Je suis Charlie" after 12 staffers of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo were assassinated by Islamic fanatics in January. It wasn't because the phrase was technically accurate-if we were all Charlie Hebdo, we'd be a lot braver than we have been until now. But it was an expression of pure human empathy in the face of inhuman slaughter, a demonstration of Enlightenment values in the face of seventh-century atavism.

Valuing human life separates us from poisonous cultures, unfree regimes, and untrammeled sadists. It elevates us from where our own societies were 100 years ago, or even 10. It will lead us down some occasionally absurd and illiberal alleyways: zero-tolerance policies for children, centralized overreactions to tragedy, space programs unwilling to tolerate risks to astronauts. But by valorizing individual worth and latitude, we create a culture where, perhaps for the first time in history, people take seriously the Golden Rule.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is the co-host of The Independents on Fox Business Network.

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  1. “yet CNN switches to wall-to-wall coverage every time a Boeing Airbus goes missing.”

    1. Yet, however, no one comments when an Antonov just plops out of the sky.

      1. We don’t get excited when the sun rises either – I mean, it is an *Antonov* after all.

        1. “even convicted criminals are individuals worthy of at least some human dignity.”

          If you happen to be caged at Riker’s Island because you can’t make bail, not so much.

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  2. Oh, and that cover picture is creepy as hell… can we stop showing that, please?!

    1. The grade school-era John Stossel creeps you out? Would you rather they show the Freddie Mercury-era John Stossel?

    2. OMG, thank you. I was thinking the same thing. That kid creeps me the hell out.

  3. Human beings, as a species, are treating each individual as incredibly precious-much more so than we have in the past.

    Human beings? As in all cultures of human beings?

    1. “He’s right you know”

      /Ghost of a Rawandan, Bosniak, Yezidi, Copt, Nigerian Christian, Rohingya, North Korean, damn near anyone from Central Africa…

      1. How dare you mention the unpersons!

        /end sarc

  4. Valuing human life begins in the mirror,

    Good article…I would just add that the hyper valuation of individuals seems for many to start and end with the mirror…

  5. We value individual human lives more every day

    Unless you are a fetus.

    *ducks out of room*

    1. *flings deep dish pizza at retreating LH*

    2. Fetuses cannot see themselves in a mirror, so valued life begins something something 😉

  6. When everything is precious, nothing is precious.

  7. I’m very worried Matt is not taking the worry-cult seriously.

    We worry because we want to prevent!

  8. This is 90% terrific, Matt. Naturally, I’ll only write about what I see as your mistakes, a failure to recognize what “markets” are telling us.

    Regarding space travel, the market tells us that it isn’t worth it. We aren’t afraid of losing lives, but losing money. The only returns are prestige, and we’ve done what we can do. A dramatic mission–sending people to Mars, for example–would probably destroy the space program entirely. Astronauts would die, not from accident, but inanition. The ones who made it back would be physical wrecks, not heroes. Would that be worth $100 or $200 billion? If you’re into space travel, stick with Star Trek.

    As for “wasteful” medicine, we have a gold-plated, highly subsidized health system because that’s what the American people, those greedy cowards, want.

    Everything else, fabulous!

    1. Actually there’s a lot of valuable stuff in space. A lot of sunlight. A lot of minerals conveniently floating around in the open. There’s also the promise of freedom and adventure that only a new frontier can provide. “Markets” are perhaps telling us that government-led space travel is not worth it. But don’t be surprised if private space travel becomes common within the next century.

      1. “Within the next century”? Does that mean, by the year 2199? OK, I can buy it.

  9. Editor in Chief Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is the co-host of The Independents on Fox Business Network.

    Say what now?

    1. In his defense, this piece is in the March 2015 print issue. Therefore, it was written back in October 2014.

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  11. The long term trends, at least since the printing press, are for decentralization of power, rule of law replacing rule of men, and technology outpacing bureaucracy. As much as I hate the increasing police state that the US is becoming, I believe those long term trends will continue, that the ultimate decentralization is individualism, and that technology and progress will move more and more of daily life out of government’s reach, and that what government is left holding will be less and less meaningful to daily life and wither away to an obsolescent stump which no one really cares about.

    It won’t happen in my lifetime, but it will happen, I am sure.

  12. Governments that do not value the lives of human beings end up treating them like pawns and cannon fodder.

    Governments that do value the lives of human beings do the same thing.

    I don’t think the progress and, sometimes false, individualism that has occurred over the past century (or two) should be assumed or co-mingled. I think the article has done this to (over-)sell optimism to an audience that doesn’t particularly need it.

    The article would seem to suggest that an IRS desk-jockey, because he has a iPhone and doesn’t shoot anyone is more enlightened or elevated relative to someone picking up a rifle (or handing one to his eldest son) in defense of self or ideal in a country that doesn’t have running water or that a woman who chooses to indulge in The Real Housewives rather than simply adding another member to some specialized part of the cultural melange is somehow doing us all a noble favor.

    There’s a reason why the enlightened world erupted spontaneously with the slogan “Je suis Charlie” after 12 staffers of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo were assassinated by Islamic fanatics in January. Considering how many governments and individuals immediately turned on the very principles the slogan embodied when the situation had passed into memory (not to mention the ones who were assaulting it to begin with), the impetus for many, can only be described as base instinct or pack mentality.

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  16. “The downside is that ever higher premiums on life create opportunities to exploit emotional overreactions to discrete incidents.”

    The biggest downside to me is that ever higher premiums on life justify ever-higher expenditures on over-regulation, striving for a level of safety that’s not close to rational.

  17. And yet Reason is all in favor of forcing children to have MMR vaccines (which have killed 68 in the past 15 years) to prevent our collective herd from a theoretical epidemic of measles (which has killed zero).

  18. Okay, if these people were still living would you value their lives; Stalin, Hitler, Polpot, Mussolini? How about Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy? Not so much, right? This article is bullshit. Society is better off with some people dead, and it wouldn’t be hard to make a list of living people that we’d be better off if they were dead.

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  20. I think adults have stolen away from children their childhood. Walking home from school was an adventure I looked forward to rain or shine, summer and winter. I still think of those times, more than seventy years ago. Playing outside was a problem for my parents, I was always late coming to dinner because I would be involved in some game. Which always upset my mother. I was in such good physical shape then, light weight, fast on my feet, and fast in the mind as well. Sunshine and cold, made me fit, walking, running and jumping kept me fit. I think it is a shame that the parents of children have let the corporations selling gasoline, school buses, etc., steal away their children’s childhood and by that their good health. The insatiable greed of adults in the business world has done so much to destroy our society, stealing the kid’s childhood is just one part of it.

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