George Packer is a brilliant writer, an admirable human being, and a man who invested immense time and effort in truly understanding one of the most important events of our generation, the war in Iraq. To use a word out of a different era: the guy’s a humanitarian.
But his response to Obama’s speech on the withdrawal makes it seem like he doesn’t understand what a president is.
Bryan Caplan wonders why economists don’t value non-existent people’s lives.
If someone gives another person $100, almost all economists agree that the recipient is better off…If someone gives another person the gift of life, however, I’ve noticed that many economists suddenly become agnostic. $100? Definitely an improvement. Being alive? Meh. It’s hard to see the logic. Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark?
Interesting. And, to take it one step further: what if I give someone $100, but don’t give them the gift of life? Is that person better off than someone who didn’t get the gift of life, and also didn’t get the $100? Conversely, if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also steal $100 from them, are they worse off? What if I don’t give someone the gift of life, and also slander them, seduce their girlfriend, and poke them in the eye with a sharp stick?
Here’s a thought experiment for Bryan Caplan: I didn’t give the gift of life to a fellow named Milton J. Fishbein who owns the house Bryan Caplan currently lives in. You can look it up: I didn’t give the gift of life to any such person. The thing is, Bryan Caplan didn’t give the gift of life to Milton J. Fishbein either. But on top of not giving Milton J. Fishbein the gift of life, Bryan Caplan has the gall to actually live in the poor guy’s house. Who among us is doing more harm, here? On the other hand, neither Bryan Caplan nor I gave the gift of life to any lady named Dahlia Rostropovich Chatterjee who owns the house I live in, but at least Bryan Caplan has the decency not to go and live in her house. So I guess we’re even on that count.
I think these thought experiments may illuminate certain flaws in the initial proposition.