There are good reasons why public policy discussions often revolve around the benefits and costs of alternative policies. Discussions that begin with the consideration of rights often require participants to acknowledge conflicting rights and to weigh up consequences in a search for the principles that can most appropriately be applied.
For example, consider what followed when I suggested recently in a discussion of the merits of lockdowns to counter the spread of COVID19 that such policies should be assessed against the principle that individuals have a right to direct their own flourishing, provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of other people. The latter part of that assertion implies a willingness to consider whether infected people who spread disease are interfering with the rights of others. At an early stage of the discussion, I acknowledged that it would be a step too far to insist that everyone has the right to recklessly endanger the lives of others. I argued that there should nevertheless be a presumption in favour of freedom, and that those who advocate restriction of freedom should be required to demonstrate that the benefits clearly exceed the costs.
That illustrates how the discussion of benefits and costs tends to rule the roost in civilized discussions of public policy. An exchange of different views about rights can be enlightening, but endless repetition of conflicting assertions about rights does not qualify as civilized discussion in my view.
A WELLBY (or Wellbeing Year) is equal to a one-point increment on a 10-point life satisfaction scale. If you assessed your level of life satisfaction as 8/10 in 2019 and 7/10 in 2020, that would be a decline of one WELLBY.
I began thinking about the WELLBY concept while considering how it is possible to measure the costs and benefits of lockdowns, but in this article, I will focus on the usefulness of that concept rather than on the question of whether benefits of lockdowns could ever exceed the associated costs.
Assessing the psychological cost of lockdowns
period to March 2021. On that basis, Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster, and Michael Baker estimate that lockdowns cause loss of life satisfaction to the general public in the U.K. of 41,667 WELLBYs per million citizens for each month of lockdown. This estimate is in Chapter 5 of their book, The Great Covid Panic, 2021.
I think that is an appropriate use of the WELLBY concept. If anyone knows of a better way to assess the psychological costs of lockdowns, I would be interested to know what it is.
Frijters, Foster, and Baker incorporate several other items in their assessment of the costs of lockdowns. I will consider one of those later, but I want to turn now to use of the WELLBY concept in the assessment of the main hypothetical benefit of lockdowns, namely lives potentially saved.
Assessing the value of a life saved
Richard Layard and Ekaterina Oparina have published a provocative article using a WELLBY approach to assess the monetary value of preventing the loss of one year of human life (Chapter 8 of World Happiness Report, 2021).
Layard and Oparina begin their discussion by observing that the average WELLBY is 7.5 in advanced countries. On that basis, they claim that preventing the loss of one year of the life of one person saves 7.5 WELLBYs.
The authors draw upon information on the relationship between income and life satisfaction in order to assess the monetary value of that loss. After some discussion of relevant research, they suggest that a coefficient of 0.3 is an appropriate measure of the impact on life satisfaction of a unit change in absolute log income. With average income of $30, 000, the loss of $1 is equivalent to 1/100,000 WELLBYs (0.3/30,000). It follows, they suggest, that “we” should be willing to pay up to around $750, 000 to save a year of life (7.5 WELLBYs).
Layard and Oparina point out that the $750, 000 would be shared over the whole population. Nevertheless, it still seems an extremely large sum to pay to prolong a life by just one year.
One possible source of error is that life may have no value for people with very low life satisfaction, for example those with a rating less than 2/10. If you assume that a life year is equivalent to 5.5 WELLBYs (7.5 minus 2.0), the estimated sum that “we” should be willing to pay to prolong life by one year is reduced to $550, 000. That still seems implausibly high.
The estimate could be further reduced by taking account of the fact that the people who are most vulnerable to COVID19 often have pre-existing ailments that would tend to reduce their life satisfaction, and many of those in nursing homes would be unlikely to live another year in any case.
However, let us return to the question of whether $550,000 is a plausible estimate of what “we” should be prepared to pay to prolong by one year the life of a person with an average life satisfaction rating. An alternative way to approach the issue of determining the monetary value of a year of life is to consider estimates of the impact of changes in healthy life expectancy on average life satisfaction. Regression analysis suggests that the addition of one year to healthy life expectancy adds only 0.033 to average life satisfaction (Table 2.1, World Happiness Report, 2019). The income loss providing an equivalent loss of life satisfaction is only $3,300 (0.033*100,000). That strikes me as an implausibly low estimate of the value of a year of life.
My view of what is a plausible estimate of the value of one year of life is not based solely on my own gut feelings. The assumed value of a life year in cost-benefit analysis typically ranges from $50, 000 to $250, 000. Those assumptions are based on surveys asking people how much they would be willing to pay to extend their lives and estimates of amounts people need to be paid to accept jobs involving greater risks to life.
Estimates of the value of a year of life within that range seem to be broadly consistent with community expectations. Some groups may lobby for lives to be valued more highly in assessing whether life-saving drugs should be subsidized by governments. However, I don’t see large numbers of people suggesting that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund that.
There seems to me to be a fundamental problem in attempting to assess the value of a life-year from the relationship between average income and average WELLBYs. As I explain in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, psychological well-being is just one of the basic goods of a flourishing human. When you ask individuals open-ended questions about how they are faring, their responses are not confined to the extent that they are “satisfied” with life. They are likely to talk about whether they are achieving their aspirations, the state of their health and their personal relationships. If you ask a person who already has high life satisfaction why they aspire to earn a higher income, they are not likely to claim that they expect a higher income to enable them to become more satisfied with their own life. They are more likely to say that they want to put some money aside for various reasons, for example to assist with education of children or grandchildren, or to have something to fall back on in the event of illness.
If an individual is faced with a decision about whether to use accumulated wealth (or to mortgage their house) to purchase an expensive drug that might prolong their life for a year, the quality of that extended life (WELBYs) is not the only factor that they are likely to consider. The choice they make may well give consideration to their desire to improve opportunities available to the next generation of their family. There is an intergenerational choice involved in placing a value on an additional year of life.
What value should be placed on the lives of potential humans?
Frijters, Foster, and Baker include among the costs of lockdown the shutting down of the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) program during lockdowns in the UK because it was deemed to be a nonessential service. This resulted in about 30 fewer IVF births per million citizens per month of lockdown.
The cost of disruption of the IVF program is not critical to the authors’ conclusion that the cost of lockdowns exceed the benefits. Nevertheless, in my view there is a strong case for it to be taken into account. Potential parents clearly place a high value on the new lives that the program makes possible.
However, the methodology which Frijters, Foster, and Baker use to estimate the cost of disruption of the IVF program is a straightforward application of the WELBY concept to value lives. They calculate that each of these potential humans could be expected to enjoy 480 WELLBYs during his or her life – each is assumed to have a value equal to 6 WELLBYs and to live on average for 80 years. With the loss of 30 IVF babies per month, that amounts to the loss of 14,400 WELLBYs worth of human well-being per month per million citizens.
The reasoning is impeccable if you accept the utilitarian assumptions associated with use of the WELLBY concept to measure the value of a human life. Within that framework, if government policies prevent potential humans from being born, that diminishes the sum of human happiness by the amount of happiness they would have enjoyed during their lifetimes.
I have already indicated that I don’t accept that people value their own lives exclusively on the basis of WELLBYs. However, if I have not yet persuaded you to reject the WELLBY approach to evaluation of lives, you may wish to consider the following possible outcome of applying that approach.
Let us suppose that a government is considering a ban on all forms of contraception and seeks the services of some utilitarian advocates of maximization of human happiness to evaluate the costs and benefits of the proposal. It seems reasonable to predict that the utilitarians would conclude that the additional births resulting from the policy change would result in a large net increase in WELLBYs, and therefore an increase in the sum of human happiness. The more, the merrier they might say!
The WELLBY concept has a useful role to play in evaluation of some policies that have an impact on psychological well-being.
However, the valuation of lives according to the number of WELLBYs individuals might enjoy seems to be at variance with the approach that individuals take in making choices in relation to extension of their own lives. That approach to valuing lives is widely at variance with the approach most people in advanced countries adopt in considering the value of potential lives of the many additional humans that they could bring into the world if they felt inclined to do so. It counts the lives of potential people as having equal value to the lives of the living.
The WELLBY approach to valuation of human life should be rejected.
A survey conducted by UBS has provided relevant information on the proportion of wealth that investors are willing to sacrifice for additional years of life. The survey covered 5,000 wealthy investors in 10 countries. On average, those with financial wealth in the $1 to $2 million range indicated that they were willing to give up 32% of their wealth for an additional decade of healthy living. That may seem a lot, but amounts to only $32,000 to $64,000 per annum when spread over 10 years.
Those figures are far lower than the $750,000 (discussed above) that an application of the WELLBY approach to life evaluation has suggested that “we” should be willing to pay to save a year of life.