A Price on Our Heads

NOTICE of REVISION: This column has been revised to correctly attribute The New York Times for data and reportage cited in its Feb. 16 story on the statistical value of human life.

Back in the American Wild West, federal and state governments often put a price on the heads of infamous outlaws like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Sam Bass, Belle Star and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Today, our government is not so selective. It's seeking to put a price on the head of every American. Not because they've robbed a train, but for a different reason that could lead to a very bad end.

A recent New York Times story summarizes how various government agencies have come up with formulas for determining how much we are worth. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Times notes, has set the value of a human life at $9.1 million, reaching this determination while proposing tighter restrictions on air pollution. During the Bush administration, EPA calculated our value at $6.8 million. Was the difference in price caused by inflation? The EPA didn't say.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) arrived at its own figure for the value of an American life. The FDA, writes the Times, "declared that life was worth $7.9 million last year, up from $5 million in 2008, in proposing warning labels on cigarette packages featuring images of cancer victims."

The Transportation Department -- yes, Transportation -- put our worth at $6 million "to justify recent decisions to impose regulations that the Bush administration had rejected as too expensive, like requiring stronger roofs on cars," according to the Times.

It's nice to know that our government values its citizens beyond what it can extract in taxes. But given the Obama administration's likely pursuit of health care rationing (Dr. Donald Berwick, a wealth redistributionist who heads the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is a proponent of rationed care) it is easy to forecast where this could lead should human life be regarded as having only that value placed upon it by government, or an agent of the state.

The beauty of our form of government is that it begins, not with government, but with us: "We the People." In our Declaration of Independence from Britain, there is a clause that sets us apart from virtually all other nations. Instead of receiving our basic rights, such as the right to life, from a king or despot -- as was the case in older cultures and too many modern ones -- America's Founders saw basic rights emanating from "our Creator" and thus, outside the reach of government and bureaucratic tampering.

Where could a formula for a governmental valuation of human life lead? If government gets to determine our worth, it could lead to government determining when in its judgment we are worthless. It could lead to government deciding that when we are costing the state more than we are paying in taxes, we might be seen as a bottle, package or can, whose "sell by" date has expired. And that would mean the government could regard us as disposable and allow -- or force us -- to "expire."

Too extreme? "It couldn't happen here," you say? All great horrors begin at the extremes and work their way into the mainstream because of moral weakness or exhaustion, or self-regard, or the rejection of (or ambivalence about) certain fundamental truths. Such neglectfulness paves the way for the great inhumanities, which today are studied in schools. They wonder, "how it could have happened" and "why didn't anyone see this coming?"

How and why, indeed? Consider yourself warned.

Direct all MAIL for Cal Thomas to: Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, N.Y. 14207. Readers may also e-mail Cal Thomas at tmseditors@tribune.com.

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist and author