Putting a Value on Jewish Life, and Safeguarding Lives

Putting a Value on Jewish Life, and Safeguarding Lives
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Shall we, and if so at what cost, safeguard every synagogue and kosher supermarket in the country? I speak here as a Jew, outraged by such despicable behavior.

There has been a spate of violent attacks against Jews and Jewish groups in the last little while in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere (I won’t even mention what occurs, all too often, in Israel). We are not talking about mere defacement of Jewish cemeteries, drawing swastikas on Jewish homes, etc. Under discussion now are actual murders. A few recent ones took place in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue; Chabad of Poway synagogue, California; Chabad of Mumbai, India; in the Hyper Casher supermarket in Paris.

What should be done to reduce the incidence of these vicious incidents? (Note, I do not even contemplate eliminating them; anti-Semitism of this sort seems too deeply embedded in the DNA of all too many demographics.)

We are a people “of the book,” so one possibility is to rely upon this comparative advantage of ours. What can be done along these lines? Perhaps set up schools in the neighborhoods from which such crimes emanate. Maybe, write some books studying this phenomenon? Possibly unleash psychological studies of it, with a view to combatting it?

Another specialty of ours is medicine (Joke: When is the fetus viable in Talmudic Law? When it graduates from medical school). In this regard, we should set up hospitals, again in communities known for Jew hatred. If we patch them up, save their lives, at least some of them might take a different path when their next bout of blood-lust rises to the fore.

These are, at best, long term solutions. If they bear fruit, it will not be for years, decades, maybe even centuries. However, the problem is so dire, we should not leave a single stone unturned.

What policies might have more immediate effect? That is simple and obvious: synagogue attendees, delicatessen patrons, yalmica wearers, shoppers at Jewish groceries, Chabad members, should purchase guns, learn how to use them, and obtain concealed carry permits. Better yet, our community should organize so as to pass open carry laws; seeing is believing. An armed society is a polite society.

What is the argument in favor of this option? If the entire Jewish community went around heavily armed in Germany in, oh, 1938, might things have turned out better for us? Certainly they could not have been worse. According to Teddy Roosevelt, we should “speak softly but carry a big stick.” We might not be able to do much along the lines of the former (we, too, have our own hard wiring), but there is nothing to prevent us from adopting the latter practice. Fortunately, there are some real world precedents for exactly this sort of thing.

One of them is the Israeli Defense Force. No Jew, even a “progressive” one, is advocating that the Israeli military engage in disarmament. This country is located in the midst of very hostile neighbors, and they are still going strong quite nicely thank you, after all these years. (The IDF would do even better if they didn’t feel they always had to fight with one arm tied behind their backs, but that is entirely a different story). Young girls go around there armed with machine guns; exceedingly rarely are they attacked within range of them.

Another example is the Jewish Defense League. Before their advent, our co-religionists in New York City were in continual danger, even at the mercy of, hoodlums. Afterward, much less so. There was no “turning of the other cheek” on the part of the JDL. Their reaction to abuse of unarmed Jews was pretty much immediate. This is important because muggers of this sort have what economists call “high time preference.” They tend to heavily discount costs what will only take place in the future. If the counter reaction is not all but immediate, it is rendered much less powerful.

A third example is the organization Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. This is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of gun rights in the United States and to encourage Americans to understand, uphold, and defend "all of the Bill of Rights for all Citizens." JFTPOFO takes the position that “an armed citizenry is the population's last line of defense against tyranny.”

A question has arisen in this context concerning the value of a human life. Should we spend a tremendous amount of money on securing every synagogue and kosher supermarket in the country because there is no price too high that we shouldn't pay to protect people?

Happily, the short run suggestions mentioned above, an armed Jew is a much safer Jew, will not cost very much money at all. A decent pistol can be had for a few hundred dollars. Bullets are cheap, as are safety lessons. Time on a firing range for practice is also not very pricey. Effectively placed schools and hospitals, for the long run, are more expensive, and will certainly be less effective right off the bat, but might also be worthwhile.

How, then, is the value of a human life to be calculated? At first blush, at least to the non-economist, this is a silly question. Each life is infinitely precious. Anyone who says different is callous.

But economists, happily, take a more rational position on this issue. We dismal scientists have cash-registers instead of hearts, and dollar signs on our eye-balls. When slavery occurs, as it horrifically does even in the modern era, the person for sale is worth a bit more than the price paid for him. When you purchase a shirt for $20, you value it at $20.01 or more, otherwise you would not buy it. If you placed a value of it of $19, you would not agree to the transaction, since you would lose money. If you valued it at exactly $20.00, you would still not bestir yourself to make the deal, since there would be no expected profit in it for you. It is the same with slavery.

How else can we ferret out the value of human life? We can do so by calculating the present discounted value of the difference in salaries paid to otherwise equally able workers in more and less dangerous occupations. Test pilots earn more than airline pilots, for example. Econometric studies of this phenomenon estimate the value of a human life at somewhere between $7 million and $9 million.

Walter E. Block, Ph.D is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, New Orleans. 

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