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The “If It Saves Just One Life” Fallacy
Last month, announcing a statewide shutdown in response to coronavirus, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”
The “if it saves just one life” argument is nothing new in American politics, as Antony Davies and James R. Harrigan show in this excerpt from their new book, Cooperation & Coercion.
Governor Cuomo’s comment was no doubt a heartfelt response to an unprecedented crisis. But can it really be a guiding principle for policymakers, in this or any other crisis? Davies and Harrigan explore the implications of “if it saves just one life.”
In January 2013, President Barack Obama said, “If there’s even one thing we can do to reduce this [gun] violence, if there’s even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.” A month later he tweeted, “If we save even one life from gun violence, it’s worth it.” His Vice President, Joe Biden, backed up Obama, saying, “As the President said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking.”
Politicians use such lines because they stir emotions. An argument intended to manipulate can stand on emotion. But an argument intended to persuade must stand on fact and reason. And politicians typically argue from emotion when facts and reason don’t cooperate.
Do We Really Do Whatever We Can “If It Saves Just One Life”?
When we turn our attention to deaths by a range of causes, the emptiness of the “if it saves just one life” argument becomes very clear very quickly. Consider the “senseless violence” that occurs on American roads every year. We should do whatever we can if it saves just one life, no?
In late July 2012, a pickup truck packed with twenty-three people veered off a Texas highway and crashed into two trees.
Nine people were injured in the crash, but they were the lucky ones. The other fourteen occupants of the truck were killed. In the aftermath, bodies lay everywhere. Among the dead were two children. Alcohol was not involved, and there was no evidence of another vehicle at the scene. The weather at the time of the crash was dry and clear.
So why was the call for legislation not swift and immediate after such a terrible event? Because people knew that these sorts of things happen from time to time, and there is little, if anything, that legislation can do to change that.
But that’s not exactly true, is it? We could address automotive deaths at any time if we were truly committed to doing so. One piece of legislation could virtually guarantee that no one would ever die on American roads again. All we would have to do is to reduce the speed limit on every road in the country to five miles per hour. That would save more than just one life.
Of course, everyone knows that imposing a national speed limit of five miles per hour is ludicrous. It also would do more harm than good.
Think about it. The cost of policing would rise dramatically because almost everyone would want to drive much faster than five miles per hour. This would leave fewer police resources available for preventing and investigating other crimes. Few people would have the time to commute more than five miles or so, and even a commute that short would take two hours every day.
But the law would do more than upend lives. We might all starve because we would have profound difficulties keeping grocery stores stocked with food. We would also have trouble getting people to lifesaving medical care quickly. Many people would, in fact, die because we passed a law intended to save lives.
There’s No Way Around Trade-offs
The “if it saves just one life” argument is usually nonsense. All human actions involve trade-offs. As the speed-limit example illustrates, a gain in one direction inevitably leads to losses in another. There is probably no such thing as a law that universally saves lives. There are only laws that save lives in one place in exchange for losing lives in another.
When politicians say, “If it saves just one life,” they can appear to care deeply while simultaneously absolving themselves of the responsibility of crafting a rational response to a difficult issue. It allows them to trade on emotions instead of facts.
If we really believed that any law is justified if it saves just one life, we would require all Americans to pass a mental health evaluation on a regular basis or be institutionalized (more than 38,000 Americans commit suicide annually). We would outlaw all motor vehicles (almost 35,000 Americans die in vehicle accidents annually). We would require all houses to be single-story structures (more than 26,000 die in falls annually). We would ban alcohol (almost 17,000 die annually from alcohol-related liver disease). We would require people to be certified as swimmers before allowing them into any large body of water (more than 3,500 die from drowning annually). We would prohibit women from getting pregnant unless they had no family history of birth complications (more than 900 American women die in childbirth annually).
Of course, none of these things will ever happen, nor should they. Life is full of dangers that cannot be legislated away.
About the Authors
Antony Davies is the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan is managing director of the Freedom Center at the University of Arizona and the F. A. Hayek Distinguished Fellow at FEE. This article is adapted from their new book, Cooperation & Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What That Means for Economics and Politics.
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