Value of Human Lives

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This article was published on January 25th, 2011. The Newspaper version is here: [link]

The Value of Human Lives
Dr. Asad Zaman

            Human lives are infinitely precious. We have only a few moments to enjoy the wonders of creation, and to experience the joys and tragedies of life. English philosopher David Hume shocked society when he first presented the idea that a human life could be priced at its economic value.  Today it has become commonplace, and arguing against it is considered idealistic and romantic.  This cheapening of human lives has resulted in wars, destruction of habitats, flora and fauna, and dissolution of communities, all for a few dollars. Today we need ideals and romanticism to save the world.

The idea that wealth will solve all human problems has been responsible for an immense amount of human misery in the twentieth century. The tremendously influential economist Keynes expressed this idea very clearly. He wrote that we must pretend that “fair is foul and foul is fair” and pursue the (false) gods of avarice and usury, for at least a hundred years. We will be able to afford to behave morally only after we have accumulated sufficient wealth. Only then will we be able to give up the distasteful, foul and disgusting “love of money.”  But at the moment we need this very quality in order to achieve wealth, which is necessary for the prosperity of mankind.

A generation of economists faithfully followed this Keynesian advice. The idea that wealth was meant for the enjoyment and welfare of human beings was replaced by the idea that human beings were a means towards the creation of wealth. Economists argued that the poor should be fed because that would increase their productivity as laborers, instead of arguing on grounds of compassion and humanity. Human beings became a “resource” to be used as an input to production of wealth.  Education became a means of providing people with skills valued on the job market, instead of the pursuit of knowledge for spiritual transformation and for understanding and changing the world for the better. Development was measured in dollars, instead of enhancement of human capacities for wisdom, love, and respect for each other.

In implementing development policies for Pakistan designed by experts from Harvard, Mahbubul Haq recognized the need to sacrifice human lives to the gods of economic growth. He wrote that “economic growth is a brutal, sordid process… making the labourer produce more than he is allowed to consume for his immediate needs, and to reinvest the surplus thus obtained.” To his great credit, he learned from his experience. He was horrified by the outcome of these economic policies, which led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the “22 families,” and increase in misery of millions. He eventually came to the conclusion that   “…, after many decades of development, we are rediscovering the obvious—that people are both the means and the end of economic development.” This crucial insight of Mahbubul Haq, born of bitter experience, is still not understood by economists and policy makers.

Making human lives a central concern would radically affect development policies. Economists routinely advise governments to let inefficient sectors collapse – this will lead to greater productivity when resources are shifted to other, more efficient sectors. The impact on lives of those who become unemployed in the process does not figure in these  calculations.  In this and many other cases, the cost benefit analyses of economists pay no attention to the human factor, but only compute effects on wealth and productivity.

The economists paradigm is that by building industries, institutions, free markets, and encouraging capital accumulation through FDI and privatization, we will create economic growth. Diametrically opposite to this idea is to concentrate on providing the people with lives of meaning and dignity, supporting them on crucial dimensions of health, housing and education. The people will then prove to be the engines of growth along all dimensions, social, political and economic.