A Sadly Common Viewpoint

Buried in the midst of a collections of guesses on the defining dualities of the century ahead, we have this:

Life extension for all vs for some

There will be an increasingly agonised division between those who feel that new life-extension technologies should be either available to those who can afford them or available to everyone. Life itself will be the resource over which wars will be fought: the “have nots” will feel that there is a fundamental injustice in the possibility for some people to enjoy conspicuously longer and healthier lives because they happen to be richer.

This is a sadly common viewpoint, driven by a worldview that precludes opportunity and change - not a world in which the "have nots" are beset with opportunity to become wealthier with hard work and savings, as is still the case out here in most parts of reality, despite great efforts on the part of politicians and government employees to cut the lowest rungs from the ladder.

But economic understanding aside, just how sensible is it to predict war over early healthy life extension - even when the technologies are still expensive and poorly available, before the engines of commerce and competition take over and do what they do for every new technology; bring down the price, make the goods better, and increase the level of safety? Even in this over-regulated medical socialism in the Western democracies, was there a war over heart surgery? Only the rich could get their hands on that back in the day, and that made a big difference. Is there a war right now over the rationing of Alzheimer's treatments in the UK, treatments that any wealthy individual can obtain on their own dime? Is there a war brewing over stem cell therapies for heart disease, again something unavailable as yet to those of us who have not saved up enough for a down-payment on a nice house?

At least in the case of these two technologies for the heart, competition and research is steadily driving down costs and improving quality, despite the choking regulatory burden that makes research and development far more costly and slow than it might be. But in the case of the UK rationing, the heavy hand of government is the problem, and things are unlikely to become better until that changes.

The world is unfair to those who choose to be poor, and far more unfair to those whose escape from poverty is closed off by corrupt and malign governance. This is a simple truth: if you have less, you can buy less, and that includes the use of medical technology to improve health and lengthen healthy life. Yet most people have the opportunity to escape from poverty on timescales far shorter than their life span. A world of both dramatic inequality and opportunity for all is a far better world than one of utter equality and absent opportunity - because you cannot build the latter world without tearing down every engine of progress and reducing society and its works to a wasteland. It is the opportunity to climb that ladder - and the freedom to undertake that work - that drives human ingenuity, competition and the provision of ever better goods and services at all levels.

There will be no war so long as there is freedom, opportunity and the prospect for ongoing improvement at every level. It is where these opportunities and avenues of progress are blocked that conflict occurs.

Technorati tags: ,


Reason, I share--to an extent--your frustration with the regulation of the medical industry. However, there are times when I think you might well be repelling as many potential advocates for healthy life extension as you attract. Certainly casually dismissing millions as "choosing" to be poor smacks of a certain condescension and that will earn few converts among those not already part of your choir, no matter how many facts about the deleterious effects of regulation upon innovation you can marshal to your defense (or attack). Even just in nakedly partisan terms, the major American political party friendliest towards stem cell research and similar cutting-edge medical technology is also the one most likely to be repelled by such a callous branding of such a broad swath of the population. Outside the political sphere, I think you sometimes give the impression that only believers in a fairly absolutist strain of libertarianism can be believers in healthy life extension, which many will see as a signal to point their browsers elsewhere. I've been a subscriber to your RSS feed since May of 2005 and have seen this sort of thing more often than once. It's sometimes hard for me to feel welcome here, and I have more libertarian urges than many. I would be surprised if I am alone.

In addition, moving away from what should be to the realm of how people actually act, my guess is that once the concept of healthy life extension is proven in humans, with sufficient evidence to dispel both the Tithonus error and the "snake oil salesmen" reflex, government action on the subject is all but inevitable. This will not be like LASIK or other elective surgeries that people understand are purely for vanity and therefore essentially peripheral to the national healthcare debate. By your own admission, this will inevitably be a much bigger deal. I can foresee no plausible version of future events in which government remains on the sidelines past certain technological milestones on the road to healthy life extension--milestones which we may well (and hopefully will, in fact) reach in the not-so-distant future.

This need not be the end of the dream, as the subtext of your posts sometimes suggests. Government need not be a four-letter word in this debate. Smallpox and polio were both eradicated at least partly through concerted government action, once it was shown that, medically, such eradication was possible. If you are right, that aging is just properly seen as merely another degenerative disease that can be fought, you should neither expect nor demand public authorities ignore realistic opportunities to do so--even if such measures are likely to be costly, particularly in their early stages, and would thus violate your libertarian principles against taxation and wealth redistribution.

Posted by: Gramarye at February 22nd, 2007 8:30 AM

There won't be a war because the elites of all countries have access to the best medical technologies.

Posted by: James D. Miller at February 22nd, 2007 9:39 AM

As a long time reader, I second Gramarye's opinion. I visit here for intelligent updates on what's going on in the life extension community not the liberterian agenda. You're clearly passionate about both, but this blog is named FightAging, which implies a focus. With all your passion you need a second blog, FightGov.com. :-)

Posted by: Ian at February 22nd, 2007 7:42 PM

People differ in their views; if I were one to modify mine to better fit the audience, I'm sure I wouldn't also be the sort to be trying to change minds on healthy life extension. It's something of a package deal.

Nevertheless, I encourage all who feel a different approach will do better to get out there and try it - the more the merrier at this stage.

For those folk who prefer a less libertarian and more accomodating, big-tent approach to healthy life extension, there is always the Longevity Dividend initiative:


For that matter, Aubrey de Grey is certainly no libertarian. His argument for philanthropy first and foremost is made from utility based on past failure for the government funding approach:


Posted by: Reason at February 22nd, 2007 8:17 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.