Mr. Ross is an Oregon commentator and writer especially concerned with new developments in human freedom.
The average lifespan continues to increase in the United States. Once the deleterious effects of greater cigarette smoking among males are taken into account, American men and women can reasonably hope to live well into their seventies. At the time of this nation’s founding, the expectation was only about half that.
The trend which started long ago shows few signs of abating. “Life extension is not a new concept. Pioneers such as Semmelweis, who advocated that doctors wash their hands before examining pregnant women in labor (to control the deadly bacterial infection called puerperal fever); sanitation engineers; and other public-health officials around the turn of the century extended life substantially by preventing communicable diseases through antisepsis, immunizations, sewage control, and sanitary food and water processing.”
In most modern nations huge amounts of money (hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. alone) yearly go to various health-related programs designed to prevent, arrest, or reverse the various diseases and deteriorations which shorten human life. As an international underscoring of this effort, note that at $234.5 million the World Health Organization of the U.N. received the biggest single-agency share of the U.N.’s 1983 annual budget of $1.63 billion.
In a sense, the entire field of medicinal research directly or indirectly promotes the extension of human life. But many other disciplines, such as genetic engineering, computer-assisted diagnostics, biophysics and chemistry, radiation research, and nutrition—to mention just a few of the productive shafts of the life-extension gold mine—also contribute.
There is little doubt that science values the idea of enabling people to live longer. Certainly if we asked the average “man (or woman) in the street” if he thought greater life expectancy is a good thing, he would answer with a resounding, “Yes!”-as long as he could live in good health and decent economic circumstances. In other words, he would like to live long and prosper, physiologically and materially, which of course would enormously enhance his happiness.
Blessing or Burden?
Longer lifespan seems an obvious value. It is hard to imagine anyone considering it a negative. Yet, some do. Why? Because, they assert, it might be “too great a burden on society.”
This fear about longer life being a burden rather than a load-lightener has a distinctively statist origin and appeal. Statism—because of its nature and despite its rhetoric of disguised benevolence—has a rationale for opposing longer lifespans under certain circumstances.
Statism builds and depends for its “life-extension” upon governmental programs which arbitrarily designate an end to the productive lives of citizens. Historically, in the more barbaric states, the elderly have simply been killed off. In “enlightened” modern statist nations older people are handed stipends. Because statist systems are resistant to change, the prospect of citizens living longer threatens “smooth” functioning and in some cases the very existence of entire bureaucracies.
As we all know, many nations have mandatory retirement ages and ages beyond which citizens are unconditionally entitled to government welfare. Vast, ponderous agencies such as the U.S. Social Security administration and various health care bureaus exist to distribute money taken from those who have not retired to those who have.
The bureaucrats who work in these agencies naturally have a vested interest. Their jobs depend on maintaining the status quo—as long as they can continue to sell government legislators on the idea. But the bureaucrats are primarily concerned with preventing the status quo from moving in one direction: toward the shrinking of their agencies’ scope and power. If the status quo changes by expansion, that’s quite a different matter.
This was the pattern in America for many years, although it accelerated from around 1945. “Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has moved toward functional socialism almost secretly,” according to London School of Economics teacher, Maurice Cranston. As he points out, health care funding alone [a large component of which is income transfer to the elderly] “in 1950 was 4.5% of the gross national product, or something under $13 billion. By 1970 it had risen to 7.2% and by 1980 it was 9.5%, or $1,067 per person.” Of course, as to Social Security, it is common knowledge that taxes in that area have now moved into the spotlight as the largest single-purpose confiscation American producers and workers have ever had to fork over other than for defense.
How Longer Lifespans Threaten Welfare Agencies
How exactly would longer lifespans threaten such burgeoning agencies’ status quo or expansion?
First, we should recognize that the operators of the agencies are not stupid. They know that for their bureaus to function, they must have a steady supply of money. But, when more and more people live longer and retirement and benefit-qualification ages remain the same, the ratio of benefit-recipients to benefit-sup-porters (taxpayers) goes up.
As the bureaucrats see it, there are only two ways to solve this dilemma. Either taxes must go up or mandatory retirement and benefit-qualification ages must rise. What we’ve actually gotten has been a mixture of both, with most of the mix consisting of higher taxes. The agency operators prefer the latter as long as their legislator-benefactors concur, which they’ve tended to do. For by raising taxes and not significantly raising age limitations, the bureaucrats and politicians together create an ever-larger political constituency of elderly recipients of income transfers.
So far, it would seem that our statists actually prefer longer lifespans. The more elderly recipients under their welfare wings, the better off the bureaucrats are politically—i.e., the less the likelihood that their agencies will be trimmed or terminated—right? Such is not the case. Sooner or later even the most economically jaded bureaucrat or politician must recognize certain financial realities. The primary reality in this context is that there is a point beyond which lifespans which are too long threaten the state’s status quo by (a) forcing cutbacks in other equally politically popular redistribution schemes and (b) creating a backlash among the ever-smaller but still very large number of taxpayers. In other words, the welfare-for-the-elderly special interest groups find themselves fighting many other special interests, including other powerful bureaucracies and tax-rebelling producers and workers. This is the problem we approach in America today.
Stop Promoting Longer Life!
What is the “logical” solution which springs into the minds of clever statist planners? It is: Stop encouraging research, programs, and policies which promote longer life. Is this an overstatement? Well, witness the “concerned” remarks, such as this typical one by Alexander Leaf, former head of the President’s Special Commission on Aging: “To consider any extension of human life span without a serious effort to anticipate and plan for the impact of increased longevity on society would be entirely irresponsible.” At first glance this may sound innocent enough. But the implication is ominous: Unless we first have “social impact” studies of life extension research and actions, it is irresponsible to promote life extension; which means promotion of longer life—unless first cleared by society (i.e.-government, society’s coercive agent) is to be condemned!
The argument is very similar to those which contend that new machinery should not be introduced without “labor impact” clearance. What we have is a fundamental attempt to subjugate life extension efforts to the will of the state. It is a kind of enforced life extension Ludditism.
As Pearson and Shaw, the two most prominent life extension scientists in the U.S., wrote, “With this philosophy, we may not be permitted to extend our lives beyond the traditional three score and ten until the government figures out how to handle all the expenses and changes from widespread life extension.”
“Is [Alexander Leaf's] comment merely an abstract point of no practical consequence?” they ask. Hardly. Extensive government health and welfare controls have led to development of policies restricting the extension of life. “Already, Britain’s socialized medical service generally refuses to provide expensive treatments such as dialysis to patients over 65. The U.S. government already legally limits the number of hospitals that may purchase expensive CAT scanners and modern radiation therapy units, due to their impact on Medicare costs.” And while the authors admit that these types of restrictions are touted as economy moves, “the people who made these decisions and the governments they work for face an inherent conflict of interest. These governments have colossal income-transfer programs, which take money from the young and transfer it to the old . . . . These programs and growing public awareness of advances in life extension research require that choices be made between the extension of human life span and the expectations of the electorate for ever more services at tax rates that they can afford. Either electorate expectations for government services must decrease, or taxes . . . must increase, or the human life span must be held constant by government policy”
While public awareness of life extension research is indeed greater than a few years ago, considerable danger lies coiled in this political fact: There is no life extension special interest group even close to the size of other major political lobbies. Politically, this makes it possible for government agencies to, in a host of ways (such as FDA prohibition of free choice in use of potentially life-ex-tending drugs), erode, inhibit, and block efforts of individuals and private organizations and firms to pursue a free market in life extension fields.
This interventionism in the life extension market should surprise no one, for as Ludwig von Mises pointed out long ago, major bureaucracies are by their nature hostile to the free market. Opposition to a free market in human longevity is merely the latest in a long line of statist attacks on all market freedoms.
In order to thwart these attacks, a foremost requirement is for economists to speak out and present the case for the economic benefits of longer lifespans. Not nearly enough has been done, primarily because for many years, until our bureaucracies started to “overload” the economy, almost everyone assumed that longer life was a good thing. Most people still do and it is a tribute to the basic American sense of life and self-improvement. But now the economic attack—a statist attack, antithetical to those basic American values-has begun and it must be countered forcefully and lucidly.
Here are some starting points for those who wish to enter the battle:
(1) The freedom to choose and pay for life extending innovations and information derives from man’s most basic right—the right to life. If he does not have the freedom to pursue the preservation and betterment of his life, then the right to life loses the anchor of reality. This means that the life-extension market must be completely deregulated. It means government must contract, not expand, its control over all fields affecting the right of individuals to make life- extending market choices. Consumers must be free to decide for themselves what medicines, drugs, vitamins, surgical procedures, research, and information will best benefit them—as long as they are willing to pay for them, as all consumers must in a truly free market.
(2) Producers of life-extending products and services should be freed to offer them in an unfettered marketplace. Quality control to protect consumers could be better handled by private evaluative groups such as Underwriters Laboratories, Consumer Reports, Standard and Poor’s, and many insurance firms now do to assure high quality in various other market areas. There is no honest market need for government agencies such as the FDA, hospital-over-sight boards, genetic research standards boards, quasi-governmental medical examining boards, or any of the myriad of coercive agencies which now exist for the alleged purpose of protecting consumers from the products and services affecting individual health—and lifespans. As has been well- established elsewhere, such oversight agencies end up restricting consumer choices—which means, they end up also restricting the ability of consumers to take steps which would enhance their physiological well-being and enable them to live longer. In short, heavily-regulated markets chop off the good with the bad.
(3) Extended lifespans also extend productive years. This is an important economic point. People these days are not only living longer, they are living in better health. Thus, a greater proportion of a person’s years can be devoted to supporting his own life—which means a smaller proportion of his years will require the aid of others, including the aid of tax-supported bureaucrats. On the face of it, this should demonstrate that extending lifespans of individuals also enhances the life and health of the entire economy. With more people relying longer on their own productive efforts, there is less drag on the economy. Especially noteworthy is that longer lived people have more time to plan and prepare for their own retirements. An extended working life enables them to save and invest more money to be used when they finally step out of the work force in their less able years.
This is more true the freer the economy we develop, the fewer the arbitrary restrictions on retirement and the fewer the government programs we institute restricting people during their productive years. As things stand, government constrains the free market of labor by various legal ceilings on the working age.
Artificially low benefit-qualification ages also provide artificial incentives for the elderly to quit working earlier than they otherwise would and live at the expense of others—including other productive elderly people! The principle that welfare encourages more people to join the welfare roles applies as much to the elderly as it does to the poor.
Ideally, from a market perspective, mandated retirement ages should be completely done away with and welfare for the elderly should be phased out and replaced by private market alternatives—such as the many excellent plans which free market economists have developed to equitably phase out the Social Security System.
(4) Finally, it is crucial to reassert a fundamental understanding of how free markets operate through division of labor. This is required not just for general economic progress anyway, but for progress specifically in the life-extension field. For if all parts of the field in a free market were allowed to interrelate, we would maximize the transfer of useful information, spurring innovation and progress to new speeds and new heights.
Perhaps more than anything else economic, it is a failure to grasp the principle of division of labor which permits public silence when particular divisions of labor (such as the life-extension professions) suffer the attacks of government. As George Reisman put it, “In the absence of such knowledge of economics, a modern nation like the United States is in the position of an ignorant crowd wandering among banks of computers or other complex machinery and randomly pushing buttons here and pulling levers there. For its people live in the midst of the division of labor, their lives depend on it, yet they do not understand it and are taking actions with respect to it whose effects they do not comprehend.”
It is for this lack of economic understanding that a generally pro-life-extension populace allows politicians and bureaucrats to randomly push the buttons and pull the levers of regulation on everything ranging from aspirin to zymology—all in the name of such package-deal slogans as “consumer protection” and “spreading the wealth.” It is an ignorance and disrespect of the market which, if it continues, will some day lead a stunned public to ask why lifespans have stopped increasing and why no one ever repeats the joyous slogan, “Live Long and Prosper.”