Death (For Everyone) Before Inequality (For Anyone)

There's something about the prospect of beneficial technological and medical progress that drives some people a little batty. Witness the slide off into the deep morass in this report:

In his research, Tuljapurkar selected representative populations from different countries around the world and examined relationships between historical trends in aging, population growth and economic activity. His analysis combined these data with forecasts on the future of anti-aging treatments from leading researchers in the field.

The result? "We've come up with a scenario: Starting around 2010, we could see lifespan increase dramatically," he predicted.

Tuljapurkar estimated that between 2010 and 2030, the modal, or most common, age of death will increase by 20 years if anti-aging therapies come into widespread use. This projected increase reflects a lifespan growth rate that is five times faster than the current rate, increasing the modal age of death in industrialized countries such as the United States from roughly 80 years to 100.


Tuljapurkar warned that the distribution of anti-aging technologies is likely to be in the hands of companies that have a history of focusing solely on profit rather than the imperative to distribute medicines to those who need them most.

"Big pharmaceutical companies have a well-established track record of being very difficult when it comes to making things available to those who can't pay for them," he said.


If anti-aging technologies are distributed in the unchecked free market, "it's entirely likely to me that we'll wind up with permanent global underclasses, countries that will get locked into today's mortality conditions," Tuljapurkar said. As the gap widens and rich countries continue to invest in anti-aging technologies, the developed world may become increasingly less willing to disseminate the technology to other nations, he said: "If that happens, you get negative feedback, a vicious circle. Those countries that get locked out stay locked out."


"What we've tended to do historically with medical advances is to take the reasonable position that we should implement everything that comes along," Tuljapurkar said. "However, we are now approaching a stage where it's necessary to look the implications before we rush in--at least so we can prepare ourselves. We need to confront the prospect of inequality head-on, instead of waiting 10 years and then saying, 'What a surprise!'"

I find it very strange that apparently intelligent people can field this sort of argument. Replace working anti-aging medicine with, say, working heart transplants, or working kidney dialysis and see how far you get in trying to convince people that suppliers in the developed world are keeping such technologies out of the hands of others, or that we must stop using medicine that is not universally available. Quite aside from the glaring failure to understand simple economics, it is deeply depressing that we live in a world in which people argue for the enforcement of large-scale, preventable suffering and death.

Life is unfair, make no mistake. People are unequal in opportunity, capacity and the hand they were dealt at birth. To think that this truth can be removed in any way, shape or form is to betray a profound ignorance of economics and the human condition. You cannot make life better at the bottom by tearing down the top; the top is where progress happens, progress that lifts the quality of life for everyone. Punishing success in order to reward failure has predictable results - more failure and less success. The wealthy of 1950 were far worse off than the poor of today precisely because progress brings economic rewards to the successful.

Arguments based on inequality are, at root, made from a misunderstanding - willful or otherwise - of the way in which wealth, medicine and technology are best created. Rapid progress for all requires a free market, strong rule of law and property rights. Such a culture necessarily has a power law distribution of ownership and success. There's a reason the US has led the world in technology, for all that it's going to the dogs nowadays - it's the flip side of the reason that communism, socialism and the politics of envy lead to poverty and suffering.

Creating "equality" by taking from the successful ruins the creation of wealth - very much a non-zero sum game - for all. It takes away the vital incentives and rewards for success. At the end of the process, as demonstrated by all that transpired in the Soviet Union, you are left with the same old inequalities, but now taking place amongst ruins, starvation and disease.

Economic ignorance is the death of cultures; it is presently eating away at the US, and is sadly most advanced in medicine and medical research. People who favor equality and envy over wealth and progress are, unfortunately, usually comparatively wealthy themselves and thus largely insulated from the short-term consequences of their ignorance. These dangerous philistines will have to decide in the years ahead whether their dearly-held positions are worth losing their lives to, not to mention the lives of everyone they manage to kill - at the rate of 100,000 with each and every day of delay on the way to working anti-aging technologies.

Fighting economic ignorance is very much a part of fighting for longer, healthier lives - because economic ignorance is the root of objections, delay and destructive regulation and governance. It's also at the root of darker paths best not taken, such as government-mandated limits to life span. We should remember that.

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Great post!

Posted by: ND at February 18th, 2006 2:52 AM

Well, yes of course it is going to be implemented in the developed world first. It is going to be quite expensive at first so logically to expect a poor country to offer it to all would be silly, you first go to the rich market to recoup and develop your product further. The problem comes in when it gets inexpensive, we see this with AIDS meds, greed trumps everything even global health emergencies. I mean everybody knows that african countries can't buy the meds from the west but can manufacture it cheaply(comodify it which is the
enemy). So people admire the succesfull but won't tolerate the greedy. Like they say Capitalism destroys itself, by commodification everything becomes cheap and ultimately everybody gets rich(because everything is cheap!!, so everybody is poor in dollar values but extremely rich in material wealth). So yes I almost completely agree with Prof. Tuljapurkar nobody is going to complain when it is rare and expensive it is when it actually will become affordable to the poor that the greedy rich will agressively exclude others in order to maintain their privilige and status.

Posted by: AL at February 20th, 2006 1:33 PM

But one more thing.

Computers were very expensive and slow, now they are cheaper, faster, and small enough so most Americans can have one for less than $500.00 that is more powerful than one for millions back in the '70's.

Anything having to do with genetics is information based, and will see rapid cost performance improvements, when combined with accelerating computer technology, narrow A.I. and the Internet.

Already, today, gene doping might be on the horizon that will help athletes increase strength and "cheat" in their trade. Or, help a 90 year old get out of bed in a nersing home, and live in thier own home. That is the beggining, and will accelerate in the next 20 years.

Posted by: chris at April 27th, 2007 10:34 PM

The vast majority of the world's population can't afford chemotherapy or radiation treatment if they get cancer. So, by the standards of the anti-life-extension crowd, I guess that we in the West shouldn't have access to these cancer treatments, because there are others out there who can't afford them. I wonder if these anti-life-extension thinkers would be willing to have themselves and their families go without chemotherapy if they got sick? Somehow, I think not.

Like many people, I'm someone who believes in a partial redistribution of income from rich to poor. (sorry Reason :-)) However, I would never dream of stifling research or with-holding a health treatment from someone who is fortunate enough to be able to pay for it, just because not everyone has access to it. That strikes me as being the height of immorality.

Posted by: Kim at December 30th, 2007 1:37 PM

Tired of these technophobes 'oh, the rich will deny the benefits' arguments, that applies to ANYTHING

Posted by: Tycio at March 2nd, 2009 7:27 PM

A large part of the world's population still live hand to mouth. They cant afford clean drinking water or basic sanitation.

Basic medical conditions that we all take for granted are not currently available to a large part of the world's population. This inequality has existed for thousands of years already. Why should the emergence of any new technology challenge this reality any more than the discovery of antibiotics, water treatment or basic sanitation did.

Children still starve to death or die of basic treatable diseases every day. Right wrong or indifferent this is reality. We have not as a race been able to solve this situation in the past. Why though should this stand as any form of impediment to the progress of medical science. Why should i die before I have to because an international inequality that has existed since the dawn of civilisation makes science morally bankrupt for seeking answers.

Any argument that cites the lack of global availability for life extension technology as an impediment to progress is, in my mind emotive and out of touch with reality.

Posted by: 2ndeffort at March 10th, 2009 11:44 PM

I think that the author's argument against the concern for inequality implies an assumption that he himself will not be denied anti-aging treatments due to a lack of money. I think most Americans would be outraged if we continually saw the ultra rich live for centuries beyond us while the majority of people grow old and die and also watch their loved ones grow old and die. But of course these arguments have been raging for much longer than I have been alive. The simple fact is that we live in a democracy, as such, it is up to society to decide how economic resources will be distributed and managed, either to the benifit or detriment of one group or another. Sometimes it is has been the choice to let the free market handle these decisions, other times it has been the choice to have the governemnt regulate those markets. Republicans, Libertarians and their ilk seem to have some deep faith that the free market is inherently better in all situations. This is childish nonsense at best. The free market works well in some instances and in others it can have disastrous consequences. We only wish the world and economics in general were that simple. I am always suspicious of people who are argue a position that is best suited to those with a great deal of power and money. The reason is that people with a great deal of power and money have an inordinate amount of influence over other peoples' opinions. Do people who believe so strongly in free market economics do so because they really understand its merits? Or do they hold these beliefs because they have been repeatedly told to do so by those that have benefitted most from free market economics?

Posted by: Steve Kizer at July 10th, 2009 10:54 AM

Though free market is what made America great, we now stand in a world ruled by those with mostrous wealth. Those with billions of dollars to lend become richer without lifting a hand. It is certain that taking too much from the ruling class and giving to the poor would deminish the working class completely. Few people work not out of necessity. However, there are those that must work to survive, and who never reap any benefit of there labors. Helping those who never have anything (while constantly working) at the expense of the elite trillion dollar class of bourgeoise would only have positive consequences. This is not to say that a person could not use his/her superior intellect or trade skills to become an elite, it is just to say that an elite cannot become somewhat omnipotent. Frankly, I would not want to live in a world forever if it remains as it is today. I have no jealousy for those with more than me, just simpathy for those with less.

Posted by: Michael Andrews at January 22nd, 2010 1:42 PM

Hah. The irony never stops. You are a Philistine! Look it up:


I mean seriously, especially this quote from Goethe:
"The Philistine not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own but also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own"

You're guilty of that right here:
"Creating "equality" by taking from the successful ruins the creation of wealth - very much a non-zero sum game - for all. It takes away the vital incentives and rewards for success."

Your writing assumes that the "creation of wealth" is something other than a fabrication (hard to argue money isn't a fabrication... we don't build houses with it) by the "wealthy". Further, 'wealth' only seems to disenfranchise the non-wealthy. Consider the case of the next Einstein born in Ethiopia rather than the industrialized world... what are the chances he'd go to school and get the education he needed to leverage his genetic predisposition to intelligence? Or perhaps you'd argue he wasn't genetically predisposed to intelligence? Don't think you can make that argument if you don't believe in equality @ birth (not that you should, i tend to agree with you that each individual is slightly more or less innately capable than those around him at birth).

My point though, is that your argument is circular; keep the same wealth-systems in place that have created a global economy, even though these systems seem to cause so much inequality and bring suffering to undeveloped places... in order to eliminate suffering faster (see my other response about colonialism here: It just doesn't hold water for me. Maybe I'm missing something.

Just because a person chooses to chase wealth and not long lives, doesn't mean that all the disenfranchised poor people in the world are incapable of developing life-extending therapies on their own. Rather, they are unable to participate in these new tech-economies because they are disadvantaged by wealth-distribution schemes that have been held in place by the very same view I've quoted above; that wealth-creation is the fundamental goal, that it's an equalizer, and that it is non-zero-sum. The true reward for success is exclusively: living longer. It is not: living richer. We should be careful not to confuse the two, or we're likely to end up with the same sort of problems Mark Shwartz has articulated in the paper you've tried to debunk.

All the better that these new technologies would be kept from greedy corporate interests by imparting as much of the understanding we gain into the 'socialist' licensing of open-source. Much like the creative commons license you use, which seems ironic to me.

Here's a very good read related to that irony. Having read a fair bit of your writing today, I suspect it will be of interest to you and may inform your future writing:

p.s. your claim that the wealthy in the 50's lived worse than the poor today is absolutely wrong. The poor today live even worse than the wealthy in the 1500's. Perhaps they have some degree of access to medical technology, or televisions, or clothing... but really how could you even begin to argue that living in the street today is better than having a house to live in with a full refrigerator 60 years ago? That's simply untrue.

p.p.s. wealth creation is only non-zero if you take an exclusively long-term view. If you consider short-term only, then you can argue that it's a zero-sum because currency is static until more value is added to the system (in the form of an IPO or money dumped into the system by the FED). In this context though, you could try to make the point that it's non-zero... but you'd have to argue benefits of wealth creation against the non-zero benefits of poverty elimination, which I don't think you'd want to try ;)

Posted by: David V. at March 18th, 2010 4:19 PM

from zero go to .... go with goverment leadership around the world .... idustrial home made tohelp ... weather for every ... day

Posted by: pieterlumbanraja at May 8th, 2010 3:29 AM

Why does he talk about free market? Medicine is expensive because it is NOT a free market at all! Current pharmaceutical law (namely, patent law) is the opposite of free market, it's based on state-granted monopolies for every drug!

Posted by: Antonio at January 21st, 2015 11:17 AM

Making this issue political (and in a manner that comes across as both elitist and condescending) like you did here is just about the worst way possible to get people to agree with you. That inequality will likely rise as a consequence of life extension technologies reaching fruition is a very real and legitimate concern that must be acknowledged rather than callously dismissed.

The best answer to give to this concern is to point out that firstly it's not a zero sum game, as you said, but far more importantly that in terms of the pure material cost of production, there's every reason to think these therapies would be at least as affordable as modern medicine, which I'll grant you is already problematically expensive, but it's not going to make the problem of inequality worse in the short term.

Posted by: Dylan Mah at July 16th, 2018 6:12 PM

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