One of my favorite discussion in law school revolved around the issues of valuing a human life. Professor Richard Posner, a major guru in the world of law and economics (now a U.S. Appeals Court Judge) believed strongly that legal rules were based on and reflected economic behavior. In order to determine whether certain precautions were reasonable you must determine the “cost” of the harm, often involving injury or loss of life. Many of my classmates struggled with the idea of trying to put a price tag on a life, arguing against the reality that we do it all the time and that it is rational to do so. So it was interesting to run across this post this morning (based on this article):

Major disasters often occur after such long, uneventful stretches. Before the partial meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979, no U.S. nuclear plant had experienced a serious accident for 25 years. Similarly, before the blowout of the BP Macondo Prospect well in April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig had gone seven years without a serious mishap while drilling some of the deepest wells on the planet. “When you think you have a robust system, you tend to relax,” Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke University, tells Popular Mechanics. Over time BP and its contractors began to cut corners: Alarms that would have warned of a gas leak were silenced, safety checks canceled. The blowout preventer—a last-ditch device intended to shut off a runaway well—was only partly functional. And workers were constantly urged to drill faster. That kind of culture invites trouble.

Then in a follow-up comment on Instapundit:

The economist’s perspective: If you never have an accident or disaster, your precautions are too strict. One Triangle fire and one WTC disaster over the observed timespan may well be optimal or too few when balanced against the present value of the costs of having codes strict enough to prevent such tragedies.

If you prefer not to put dollar values on human life, shift to risk/risk analysis and note that a) wealthier is generally healthier, b) building codes add to costs and reduce real wealth (gross of the prevented losses), and therefore c) building codes strict enough to prevent ever having something like the WTC collapse may well kill more people over time than the collapse itself. Or you can look at how costlier building codes lead to an increase in the average age of structures (all else equal) and so may result in more people spending time in older, less-safe buildings.

You’d need to do detailed empirical work to tell what the magnitudes are for these effects; possibly the optimum safety level is more stringent than what we have now. My armchair guess is that it goes the other way, though.

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