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The Social Value of Mortality Risk Reduction: VSL vs. the Social Welfare Function Approach


  • Adler, Matthew
  • Hammitt, James K.
  • Treich, Nicolas


We examine how different welfarist frameworks evaluate the social value of mortality riskreduction. These frameworks include classical, distributively unweighted cost-benefit analysis—i.e., the “value per statistical life” (VSL) approach—and three benchmark social welfare functions (SWF): a utilitarian SWF, an ex ante prioritarian SWF, and an ex post prioritarian SWF. We examine the conditions on individual utility and on the SWF under which these frameworks display the following five properties: i) wealth sensitivity, ii) sensitivity to baseline risk, iii) equal value of risk reduction, iv) preference for risk equity, and v) catastrophe aversion. We show that the particular manner in which VSL ranks risk-reduction measures is not necessarily shared by other welfarist frameworks, and we identify when the use of an ex ante or an ex post approach has different implications for risk policymaking.

Suggested Citation

  • Adler, Matthew & Hammitt, James K. & Treich, Nicolas, 2012. "The Social Value of Mortality Risk Reduction: VSL vs. the Social Welfare Function Approach," TSE Working Papers 12-292, Toulouse School of Economics (TSE).
  • Handle: RePEc:tse:wpaper:25760

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Marc Fleurbaey, 2010. "Assessing Risky Social Situations," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 118(4), pages 649-680, August.
    2. Blackorby,Charles & Bossert,Walter & Donaldson,David J., 2005. "Population Issues in Social Choice Theory, Welfare Economics, and Ethics," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521532587, March.
    3. Mark Yuying An, 1996. "Semiparametric Estimation of Willingness to Pay Distributions," Econometrics 9611001, EconWPA.
    4. James Hammitt & Nicolas Treich, 2007. "Statistical vs. identified lives in benefit-cost analysis," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 35(1), pages 45-66, August.
    5. Blackorby, Charles & Donaldson, David, 1986. "Can Risk-Benefit Analysis Provide Consistent Policy Evaluations of Projects Involving Loss of Life?," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 96(383), pages 758-773, September.
    6. Ulph, Alistair, 1982. "The role of ex ante and ex post decisions in the valuation of life," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 18(2), pages 265-276, July.
    7. Ben-Porath, Elchanan & Gilboa, Itzhak & Schmeidler, David, 1997. "On the Measurement of Inequality under Uncertainty," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 75(1), pages 194-204, July.
    8. Rothschild, Michael & Stiglitz, Joseph E., 1970. "Increasing risk: I. A definition," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 2(3), pages 225-243, September.
    9. Lisa A. Robinson, 2007. "Policy Monitor How US Government Agencies Value Mortality Risk Reductions," Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 1(2), pages 283-299, Summer.
    10. Ralph L. Keeney, 1980. "Utility Functions for Equity and Public Risk," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 26(4), pages 345-353, April.
    11. An, Mark Y. & Roberto Ayala, 1995. "A Mixture Model of Willingness to Pay Distributions," Working Papers 95-21, Duke University, Department of Economics.
    12. Samuel Fankhauser & Richard Tol & DAVID Pearce, 1997. "The Aggregation of Climate Change Damages: a Welfare Theoretic Approach," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 10(3), pages 249-266, October.
    13. Rachel Baker & Susan Chilton & Michael Jones-Lee & Hugh Metcalf, 2008. "Valuing lives equally: Defensible premise or unwarranted compromise?," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 36(2), pages 125-138, April.
    14. Olof Johansson-Stenman, 2000. "On the Value of Life in Rich and Poor Countries and Distributional Weights Beyond Utilitarianism," Environmental & Resource Economics, Springer;European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, vol. 17(3), pages 299-310, November.
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    Cited by:

    1. Adler, Matthew & Treich, Nicolas, 2014. "Consumption, Risk and Prioritarianism," TSE Working Papers 14-500, Toulouse School of Economics (TSE).

    More about this item


    Value of statistical life; social welfare functions; cost-benefit analysis; equity;

    JEL classification:

    • D61 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Allocative Efficiency; Cost-Benefit Analysis
    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty
    • Q51 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Valuation of Environmental Effects

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