When I was a j-fellow at the University of Michigan two years ago, a seminar by Bill Miller was one of the many unexpected and delightful treats. I forget what the title of his chat was, but I went in with low expectations, thinking it would be 90 minutes of law-school yammering. It wasn’t. He took us on something of a romp through such topics as the nomenclature of justice, the nanny culture of managing risk and Icelandic blood feuds, keeping us chuckling throughout.
One thing he said that night that stuck with me: The phrase “life is cheap” is used as a phrase of condemnation, but actually, it’s a sign of great progress. If you run into someone in your car and cause them to lose the use of their leg, which would you rather do? Pay them some money, or give up the use of your own leg? Valuing life cheaply is actually what allows civilization to advance.
I never thought of it that way.
Of course there was no insurance in those societies. We like to think that life was cheap in those cultures, but the problem was that it was so expensive they couldn’t get anything done. Life is cheap with us, despite all our talk about how we can’t have capital punishment because human life is too valuable. Do you know there are these signs up on the Michigan highways that say, “Kill a worker, pay $7,500”?
Is that supposed to warn you to be careful not to hit a highway worker with your car?
Yes, because not only are you going to go to prison, but you’ll pay a little fine. But everyone who drives by and reads it sees it as an insult. Seventy-five hundred for a highway worker! “Hey, I’ve got $7,500, let’s knock one off!”