The rescue of 33 miners from Chile’s Copiapó Mine was nothing less than spectacular. The operation was viewed by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide, and a government spokesman estimated its cost to be “somewhere between $10 (million) and $20 million.” He added that one third of that amount is estimated to be covered by private donations with the rest coming from state-owned mining company Codelco, and the government itself.
I’m not sure what the difference is between funds coming from a state-owned mining company and the state itself, but assuming that government spending projections are frequently underestimated, let’s use the $20 million figure. That figure leaves $13 million coming from government. There is no such thing as government money. Government money is taxpayer money. Taxpayers spent $13 million to rescue 33 miners. This spending presents us with a surprisingly difficult choice: The money could have been spent elsewhere. For example, that $13 million could have doubled the income of 35,000 of the people who earn $1 per day, likely saving or extending many of their lives. The World Health Organization estimates that there were an estimated 164,000 measles deaths worldwide in 2008. The CDC cost of the measles vaccine is $85 per dose. The $13 million would have covered vaccination for nearly every person who died of measles in 2008.
I hereby present to you excerpts from the blog of Professor Steven Landsburg, one of my favorite economists.
People are dying so that you can read this blog. Your internet access fees could more than double the income of a $400-a-year Ghanaian laborer. People are starving to death, and there you sit, with resources enough to save them (and with reputable charities standing by to effect the transfers), padding your own already luxuriant lifestyle. That’s a choice you made. It’s a choice almost everyone in the First World makes. It might or might not be a horrific choice, but it’s one for which we easily forgive each other.
(Do you already give money to Ghanaian laborers? I applaud you and I wish others would do the same. But it doesn’t change the fact that other Ghanaian laborers are dying so you can have your Internet.)
Someday you might find yourself strolling through a desert with a bottle of water and stumble on a man dying of thirst. I bet you’ll offer him some water, and I bet you’d think much less of anyone who didn’t. But there is, as far as I can see, no important moral difference between surfing the web while Africans starve and strolling through the desert while men die in front of you.
I said there’s no moral difference, which is not the same as saying there’s no difference at all. We evolved to be callous towards those who are distant (or invisible) and kind toward those who are close.
But. But. The principles that guide our individual choices are not always the principles that should guide our policy choices. When it comes to spending public funds, we instinctively continue to favor the visible, even though we might all have preferred to be born into a world where the invisible count equally.
The miners in Chile were and are visible. Their faces were on television screens worldwide. Perhaps the rescue of the miners inspired 1 billion people to act more kindly to others or to give more charity, but the decision to spend $13 million to save the lives of 33 men* isn’t as easy to make as many people think. Spending choices are difficult, which is why we choose not to think about them. Sorry for making you think, but it’s important to always be aware that there are opportunity costs to every decision.
*And those 33 presumably knew that there was a risk in mining work.
posted by jay