Imagine Terri Schiavo were a toaster …

How the dismal science applies to your life.
March 28 2005 3:27 PM

Imagine Terri Were a Toaster …

An economist considers the Schiavo case.

(Continued from Page 1)

Now, Michael Schiavo, it seems to me, is in something very like the bluenose position here. If he had a use for his wife's body—if he wanted to cook it up for dinner, let's say—then I'd have more sympathy for him. (On the other hand, I don't think we should make a habit of letting people cook their spouses up for dinner, because it creates very bad incentives with regard to keeping your spouse safe and healthy.) But in fact, he doesn't want to do anything at all with the body, except perhaps to bury it in accord with what he perceives to be the wishes of an essentially dead woman whose wishes have long since ceased to count. All he wants to do is stop someone else from feeding this body, and I see very little difference between that and wanting to stop someone else from reading William Saletan.

Well, one difference is that I enthusiastically understand why people read Saletan, and I have less understanding of why Schiavo's parents want to keep feeding her. And insofar as they want others to keep feeding her—through Medicare, etc.—I think we can safely ignore their preferences. But provided they and their supporters are willing to bear those costs, I infer that this is something they want very much and there's not much reason to stop them.

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You could argue in response that Michael Schiavo has signaled an equally strong desire to bury her (by turning down an offer of $1 million and by some reports $10 million), but I see an essential difference between the two desires. One—the desire to feed—is like the desire to read Saletan or, more precisely, the desire to read some other writer in whom I personally see no merit. The other—the desire to prevent others from feeding—is like the desire to censor, and I recoil from censorship even when a strict cost-benefit analysis recommends it.

Steven E. Landsburg is the author, most recently, ofMore Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. You can e-mail him at armchair@landsburg.com.

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