September 19, 2009

The Value of an "American Life"

We have a natural, and just, tendency to value the lives of our countrymen over the lives of others. Citizenship contains an implicit contract to protect and defend one another.

However, we have another implicit contract with the other members of the human race. All religions, all models of morality, contain injunctions to care for one another, regardless of ethnicity. When Jesus Christ taught about what it meant to be moral, he used the example of the Good Samaritan - teaching that compassion and love should cross country borders. We clearly have a greater responsibility to other Americans, but we have some moral responsibility toward everyone.

The recent health care debate in American has left me wondering whether we have skewed this balance too far in favor of our fellow Americans. We certainly have some problems with our health care system. It is inefficient, and unfair. We should fix it. Political blogs and shows are replete with comparisons to the European and Canadian health care systems, and their comparatively better standard of care. But why are we comparing ourselves to these other OECD countries, instead of being compared to all countries in the world?

It could be argued that we should be compared only to this small subset of countries because we are similar to them, and we can learn from their successes. I believe that the other reason is because we don't want to deal with the harsh truth about the rest of the world. We are arguing about whether or not it's worth expanding government coverage to all US citizens, at a cost of $129,000 per year of extended life (that's the amount that Medicare has implicitly decided on). In the rest of the world, people are dying of diarrhea and tuberculosis. The cost per year of extended life for these diseases is $20-$200. We have decided that an American life is 1,000 times more valuable to us than an African life - that we would let 1,000 Africans die instead of 1 American.

This is wrong. I believe that future generations will be aghast at depth of our nationalism. We have the opportunity and the means to save millions of lives in the developing world, and we will be judged for not acting.

Image by goulao on Flickr.