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Your End of Days: Would Life-Length Testing Save the Government Money?


A Spanish company announced this summer that it can help determine when people will die by using a blood sample, a $700 test, and research that earned three American geneticists the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009. Though the test has its critics, and though it won’t offer an exact date for one’s death, it does promise to reduce uncertainty about longevity by examining a tiny part of DNA that reveals biological age as opposed to chronological age. Successive generations of the test are likely to improve in predictive power.
Our ignorance about an individual’s longevity is the source of a number of problems. Many of them are personal, but some have implications for society writ large, and taxpayers in particular. So one wonders: if the government can make you confront the calorie content of your diet, can it also make you confront your mortality?
If the government were to mandate “life length” testing, it could help resolve the intractable lifetime savings problem. Pervasive under-saving among households is a result of our impatience, to be sure, but it is certainly also a consequence of the fact that no one knows how long his savings need to last. Save too much and you miss out on having fun when you’re alive. Save too little and you end up broke and reliant on the social safety net that taxpayers fund.
Under-saving burdens society much like obesity among the uninsured. And ignorance about how long we will live can only cause a drain on the Treasury. If you over-save by dying unexpectedly early, then you pass your remaining wealth on to heirs; the government doesn’t see it—except for a portion, if any, paid in inheritance taxes. But die unexpectedly late and you end up on the public dole, with your extra years of life paid for by taxpayers. Thus, from the uncertainty of longevity, the government faces only downside risk. There is no upside.
Resolving uncertainty about longevity would not just be in the interest of society, it would also be in the interest of strictly rational individuals, who, armed with the knowledge of when they will die, could make optimal savings decisions and check off all the items on their bucket lists. And yet, a great many of us would choose not to undergo the testing even if it were free. We simply don’t want to know when we will die.
And in many other situations, we delay resolving uncertainty even though rationality dictates that we should try to resolve it as soon as possible. Have you ever received a letter or an email and waited to open it? Maybe it was from a college admissions office or the editor of a journal to which you had submitted a paper. Did you tell the doctor you didn’t want to know the gender of your child until she was born? Or did you delay opening your medical test results, even just for a minute?
The thought of government forcing people to resolve uncertainty about their deaths probably (definitely?) seems Orwellian to most. But the same economic arguments that support mandatory consumption of calorie information—advanced by a sufficient number of Freakonomics readers to make my essay last week among the most “popular” on the blog—also support mandatory consumption of “death information”: forcing you to confront your mortality leads to better life decisions and saves the government money.
Such is the flavor of the new libertarian paternalism, a concept Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduced to the masses in describing the manager of a cafeteria who must decide on the order of food presentation in the food line. Do fruits and vegetables come before cookies and cake? The manager, a “choice architect,” must make some decisions—the food must go in some order. And so it seems sensible to put the fruit and vegetables first if that will increase their consumption relative to deserts. No one would object to this policy because the cost of consuming the desserts is virtually unchanged—it just goes onto your food tray after the healthy stuff. It makes no one worse off and may make some people better off if they value healthy eating and if a salad crowds out a cookie.
But mandatory information consumption policies, like calorie labeling laws and compulsory life-length testing, substitute a choice architect’s judgment for that of the individual in order to “nudge” the individual into a choice that the architect deems best for him or society, and yet is rejected by the individual when he is given a choice. As Thaler and Sunstein write in the American Economic Review (ungated version here), libertarian paternalism is intended as a policy approach that “preserves freedom of choice.” Except, apparently, when that choice is blissful ignorance.