Commentary  Another’s life, what is it worth?

A simple calculation of supply and demand

“Life? Bah! It has no value. Of cheap things it is the cheapest thing. Everywhere it goes begging.”
­­—Wolf Larsen

I have decided: a man’s life is worth 1,000 rupiah (10 cents). It is not 2,000, it is not 10,000, and it is definitely not priceless, as some moralists would like us to believe. The law of supply and demand – the most absolute law in this society – dictates it to be worth that much. Let me tell you how I came to that conclusion.

I’ve always known that life is never worth much. One must be able to put a tangible value on it. But how much is it worth? I learned the exact value of life when I took the inner-city train in Jakarta, from Pasar Minggu to Jakarta Kota.

A non-air-conditioned economy train costs 1,000 rupiah. You feel the rumble of the moving train under your feet, and you also hear the sound of footsteps from the ceiling – the top seat is reserved for the bold ones who enjoy a panoramic view of the city.

There is no door. A long time ago, someone decided to take it out, so that passengers could get on and off more easily. That stroke of genius has saved countless wasted hours of waiting for doors to open and close. In a packed train with no air conditioner and broken fans, the no-door policy also serves as natural ventilation. The more adventurous often take the liberty to enjoy the wind hitting their face, hanging off the sides of the train and creating extra space for the elderly who don’t have the strength to be so daring.

For the millions who have to flock to Jakarta to sell their labour, the train is a daily fact of life. One thousand rupiah is how much the free market values their life. There are just too many lives crawling around. Wolf Larsen of The Sea Wolf put it aptly: “Why, if there is anything in supply and demand, life is the cheapest thing in the world. There is only so much water, so much earth, so much air; but the life that is demanding to be born is limitless.”

Too many workers, too few factories; too many poor people dying for a crust of bread, too few who care enough to share what little bread they have. You put all these numbers in the grand equation of supply and demand, hit enter, and 1,000 rupiah is the number you get when you query the price of life.

Society’s conscience is disturbed by this number, so it has to invent the so-called “sacredness” of life. A truism is therefore plucked from the sky: life is sacred and intrinsically valuable.
Later, I flew to Saigon. As I walked past the luxurious first-class seats on my way to the back row, I wondered how much people paid for these seats. Some lives are just more expensive than others. It is true that the only value a life has is what that life places upon itself, but some people are freer to overestimate their own worth, naturally, with all the prejudices in their favour. The rest – and there are plenty of them – shove a dime through the ticket booth and that’s what they are worth.

Ted Sprague is currently in South East Asia. You can follow his adventure through this column or his blog