5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? 7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life; there is no price one can give to God for it. 8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, 9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.
The best things in life are free, so the saying goes. We don’t consider a human life “free” however. Life is “priceless” but it’s not “free.”
As the psalmist says, “there is no price one can give to God for it.” Life is a priceless gift of the Creator, and only he can redeem it. Indeed, he has redeemed it, and at the cost of his only son, Jesus of Nazareth.
To place a price tag on life is to commit a category mistake. Life does not belong in the set of price-able things. To presume a life can be priced is an extreme example of the “economistic fallacy” in which everything is subject to the power of the market to set prices. In the infamous “Pinto fires” case, Lee Iaccoca and the Ford Motor Company calculated the cost of deaths due to Pinto fuel tank explosions, and decided that it was "less expensive" than the cost of installing fuel tank safety mechanisms. Ford claimed no malicious intent; but we must see this as the natural result of a thought process that places everything—even life—in the category of "price-able" things.
The priceless value of human life seems obvious to us, but modern civilizations still treat human beings as commodities to be bought and sold in the free market, and the economistic fallacy (also known as “commodity price fiction”) is perpetuated throughout our economy.
Public policy is generally the only practical approach to avoid the commodity price fiction with respect to public goods like water quality, climate change, kidney transplants, and endangered species. But that leaves countless unpriceable private values on the table for business to deal with every day. Human dignity is at stake in every transaction—employees, customers, and neighbors near and far are affected. There is no price tag on the trust earned by maintaining product quality against competitive pressures, or by nurturing the spiritual health of an employee.
As the psalmist says, when it comes to the dignity bestowed by our commercial activities, “there is no price one can give to God for it.”
 Karl Polanyi diagnosed the “economistic fallacy” as a side-effect induced by the supreme power of capitalism. Polanyi, Livelihood of Man (New York: Academic, 1977) 5-6.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014