Almost all major policy issues revolve around saving lives. People frame their arguments in terms of the number of lives that can be saved. On the surface level this makes perfect sense. No one likes premature deaths, so why shouldn’t we prevent them? For instance, if a 22-year-old man is killed during a gang showdown, that’s plainly a premature death. Stop the shooting and you save a life.
For other issues, it’s not so clear. The murkiness comes from the understanding of the concept of “premature” death. Consider the topic of obesity. The common figure is that obesity causes 450,000 deaths in America each year. Yet many question the statistic. In an article in Scientific American late last year, one group of researchers suggested that the issue is strongly affected by age. Among old people, it may actually be advantageous to be somewhat overweight (according to the official classification), because cushions of fat can protect major organs from damage in some circumstances.
Suppose that an 85-year-old who weighs 250 pound has a heart attack and dies. We might classify that as a premature death due to obesity, but is it really? There’s a chance that the person in question might have died before reaching age 85 if he or she wasn’t overweight. Thus it’s not clear whether obesity really caused a premature death. Yet the focus on saving lives by tackling the biggest causes of death ignores such subtleties. If we only look at the number of deaths, then this person has contributed to the numbers which motivate people to tackle obesity as a major issue.
I think we could prioritize better if we stop looking at the number of lives saved by a policy, and start looking at the amount of life extended. In other words, we estimate how much longer people would live on average, rather than just whether they would live longer. Thus, issues such as murder, suicide, and car accidents, which strike mainly at the young, would move up in the list of priorities. Obesity, hitting mainly old people, would move down. I say that this gives a more sensible approach to setting policy; what say you?