Death and Taxes

In politics, death is a remarkably potent card to play. But its rhetorical power needs to be matched by a bit of substance. Every year, about 130,000 Australians die. Each of these deaths are tragic (I’m not saying this lightly – having attended the funeral of a young bloke last month). But it’s also a fact that because government is about one-third of the economy, and there are hundreds of deaths every day, government policies will invariably affect mortality. In some cases, government money can reduce the death rate. But plenty of other policies potentially increase the death rate. For example:

  • A motorway improvement that induces more people to drive can increase traffic deaths (though it could reduce them, if the earlier road was particularly unsafe).
  • A birth payment that increases the birth rate will probably also increase neonatal and postnatal deaths.
  • A government-funded fun run – like the City to Surf – can lead to additional deaths.
  • An expansion in the size of our military is likely to lead to more soldiers losing their lives in training exercises.

So yes, let’s focus on mismanagement, if it exists. But can we get away from the notion that additional deaths somehow prove that a minister or government is morally culpable?

7 thoughts on “Death and Taxes”

  1. I don’t agree Andrew. Negligence is the key difference between the insulation deaths, and the examples you have raised.
    Now I know negligence has not been proven yet, but it is at least suspected given the many warnings that were given.

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  2. As I was hinting at <A HREF=”http://larvatusprodeo.net/2010/02/16/the-lifesaving-stimulus-package/”>with this post</A>, I think it’s reasonable to consider the effects of government policy on death rates, though of course it should not be the only criteria on which a policy is judged.
    Isn’t the point of having a government to adopt policies that result in us living happier lives – and isn’t living long and healthy lives a big part of living happy ones?
    For instance, if there’s a choice between building a freeway or a train line, isn’t the fact that the train line will likely result in fewer road deaths (and health impacts due to the pollution from cars) something worth taking into account?
    The trouble, of course, is when a policy causes easily identifiable negative effects, and the positive effects are diffused among a large population over a length of time.  For instance, consider mass vaccination.  A small proportional of children suffer side effects from vaccines.   A small proportion of those will suffer permanent injury or death (very, very rare, but it does happen).  However, the vaccination program prevents epidemics of the disease occurring, which would cause injury and death on a much wider scale.  But because nobody is identifiably “saved” by the vaccination campaign, a lot of attention is given to the unfortunate few who suffer serious side effects.

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  3. I agree with your basic premise that additional deaths from a government policy does not automatically equate to the responsible minister being ‘morally culpable’ (human lives are not priceless after all, as much as it would be nice to think that they were).

    However, that is not a complete depiction of the insulation saga. I was shocked to read about the number of very serious safety warnings Garrett received about the program from industry bodies, unions and state and federal govt officials (about 40 in total for memory). And a significant number of these warnings were received before any deaths occured. It is these circumstances that appropriately give rise to the accusation that the minister and the govt may be ‘morally culpable’ for the deaths that have occured.

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  4. I agree with your basic premise that additional deaths from a government policy does not automatically equate to the responsible minister being ‘morally culpable’ (human lives are not priceless after all, as much as it would be nice to think that they were).However, that is not a complete depiction of the insulation saga. I was shocked to read about the number of very serious safety warnings Garrett received about the program from industry bodies, unions and state and federal govt officials (about 40 in total for memory). And a significant number of these warnings were received before any deaths occured. It is these circumstances that appropriately give rise to the accusation that the minister and the govt may be ‘morally culpable’ for the deaths that have occured.

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  5. The answer is we can’t. Government is the major contributor to all externalities both positive and negative in the economy. We should assign moral culpability to the decision makers or we can take it one step further and get rid of this major obstacle (government) in the free market system and not have to assign any blame to anyone.

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  6. Nashat,

    I seriously doubt your assertion that Government is the major contributer to externalities. (Unless you are Scandinavian, using Govt contribution as a % of GDP as a proxy wouldn’t seem to indicate this.) Anything factual  to back that up?

    Mmmm, a self-regulating and benign body of industries and populace – that would be Utopia, correct?

    Without legal frameworks or alternate incentives (as set by governments) I fail to see how absence of government from a free market system contributes to a reduction of externalities or moral culpability. There is no logic to your arguments.

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