Econ of Longer Lives

I’m a little late to the party, but in December’s Cato Unbound debate, Aubrey de Grey and Ronald Bailey argued that much longer healthy lifespans would be good, while Diana Schaub and Daniel Callahan had doubts.  Some samples:

Daniel Callahan: My standing complaint against de Grey and his enthusiastic colleagues is that they defend themselves by hypothesizing a variety of changes in our present way of life that would make our extended lives a kind of heaven on earth. We would be so healthy and energetic we would want to keep working indefinitely. We could start new careers, new families, new ways of life. That we might get tired of it all, or bored, is not allowed into their calculations. Nor is any imaginative effort to imagine the deleterious social effects allowed.

Ronald Bailey: So what about the social consequences of radically longer and healthier lives? In that regard, Diana Schaub in her reaction essay raises many questions for reflection about those consequences, but curiously she fails to actually reflect on them.  Schaub … simply recapitulates the standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique of asking allegedly "unnerving questions" and then allowing them to "fester in the mind." Sadly, all too many bioethicists think they’ve done real philosophic work by posing "hard" questions, then sitting back with steepled hands and a grave look on their countenances.

This issue has sparked many debates, conferences etc. over the last few years.  The invited participants have naturally been intellectuals who have published on the topic recently, mainly activists and bioethicists.  We economists have not published on this topic, and so have not been included.  But this is not because we have nothing to say.  Instead, no economist has anything special to say.  We can all easily see that standard economic theory seems to say longer healthy lives are a good thing.  So none of us thinks any of us should get precious academic publication credit for saying such an obvious thing.  As a result, life extension debates ignore economic theory. 

Of course appearances may be deceiving, so perhaps there are good economic theory reasons against longer healthy lives.  And perhaps economists would typically let their "judgment" overrule economic theory on this issue.  But it still seems to me a shame that observers of this debate can remain unaware of what standard economic theory seems to say on this subject. 

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