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What is the political and economic value of a person? It seems a strange question to pose—how could we place an impersonal numerical value on something as sacred as human life? Some might consider this question blasphemous, as it could be taken to devalue or degrade our conception of the person. Even if we could reliably quantify a person’s economic and political worth, what would be the significance of those numbers?
Raising this issue may invite criticism of being blinded by the overly systematized, economized and materialistic focus of contemporary society, placing statistics before relationships or “profits above people.” But I take another view.
The political value of the person could be quantified in terms of the number of treaties guaranteeing human rights protections and nations with reliable democratic institutions. As many nations of the world come to place higher political value on each individual’s life, citizens are free to speak, associate, worship and vote freely and free from the fears of arbitrary harm to person or property.
The economic value of the person indicates the relative price of a person’s labor compared to the prices of other important good— basically what a person’s wages can buy. When wages increase relative to other prices, people have more economic power and ability to secure the goods they need for their families. For the poor, a higher economic value on their services and labor will mean that they can obtain better nourishment, clothing, shelter, education and medicine.
Not in spite of, but because of the moral value of the person, we must assess whether people are being valued politically and economically. Moreover, we should seek to improve these circumstances, to free people from fear of political malfeasance and create economic opportunities.
The good news is that an increasing number of people in the world today—including the poor—are more politically free and economically prosperous than at any other time in human history.
Freedom House, a human rights advocacy group, reported this year that 144 countries are “free” or “partly free,” encompassing two-thirds of the world population. Only 48 nations remain listed as “not free,” and there is a strongly positive general trend towards greater political freedom. As nations place a higher value on the person, more people in the world live in societies where free press, civil liberties, civic associations and political competition have replaced a fearful vacuum of civil and political rights.
Perhaps more surprising are the incredible leaps toward global economic improvement. Although we cannot ignore significant ongoing needs, we also must recognize that the global poor now enjoy vast improvements in welfare that were unimaginable only a few decades ago.
Over the past forty years, life expectancy for the poorest has increased by about 50 percent, from an approximate average lifespan of 40 years to 60 years, as documented in reports by both the United Nations and World Bank. Despite stagnation in some areas, most poor nations nearly doubled their average incomes from 1975 to 1999. Consistent improvements have been the trend even among the poorest nations on every significant measure of the Human Development Index, including income, education, life expectancy and infant mortality.
Due to rapidly growing population and high fertility in poor nations, one might naturally infer that numbers of people living in hunger and poverty would be on the rise. But even in spite of population increases, the total number of malnourished people has dropped by 200 million in the last three decades. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that between 1970 and 1995 the proportion of undernourished people declined by half, falling drastically from 37 to 18 percent of all human beings. For over a century, the real-world price of food has been in consistent decline even as quality has improved. Further, food production has increased faster than population growth.
The availability of physical comforts beyond basic necessities is also growing. Lower prices of raw materials and energy signal that they are less scarce, easier to find and cheaper to produce. Aluminum was considered a rare precious metal on par with gold and silver only 100 years ago, but technology has made its extraction cheap and its supply essentially unlimited. Demand for just 12 metals makes up more than 99 percent of world demand for all metals, and supply of those 12 is now considered inexhaustible. Oil prices have fallen over tenfold in the last century while the amount of proven reserves has vastly increased.
There is only one important resource that shows a trend of increasing scarcity rather than abundance—human beings. Although there are more people on earth than ever before, their increasing economic scarcity, as indicated by rising wages, is a consistent trend in poor countries as well as wealthy ones. This rising value proves economist Julian Simon’s declaration that the spirit and creative mind of a human person is “the ultimate resource.”
Politically and economically, human beings are currently valued more highly than at any other time in history. The world reality is coming to better reflect the moral value of individual persons. As civilization advances and more people share in the freedom and prosperity of the developed world, let us celebrate these positive trends, search diligently to understand their underlying causes, and seek to accelerate their realization for fellow human beings who do not yet share them.
Richard T. Halvorson ’03 is a philosophy and government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. This is his last column.
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