June 30, 2023 Reading Time: 6 minutes

The saga of the lost OceanGate Titan submarine dominated media attention for a week in mid-June. With only five days of breathable air aboard, the world held its breath wondering if the wealthy Titanic adventurers would be saved in time.

We have since learned that the underwater vehicle lost contact with its surface craft and likely imploded less than two hours into its dive. Moreover, there is now strong evidence that the U.S. Navy knew about the implosion shortly after it happened based upon its extensive system of underwater listening devices. Nonetheless, the search continued past the point when the sub crew would have run out of air.

If the U.S. Coast Guard and other interested parties knew that rescue efforts were futile, why did they continue? This question is all the more relevant given the extensive cost (estimated in the millions of dollars) of the days-long search. From a very utilitarian economic perspective, the rescue attempt should have been called off much earlier when the probability of recovery was deemed miniscule and the costs of continued efforts, including risks to rescuers, high. 

And it is not just submarines. Expensive rescue efforts past the point of “no hope” are common for lost hikers, victims of natural disasters, and even soldiers wounded or killed during live battles

Why do we continue search and rescue attempts when we are certain that all hope is lost?

This question may sound cold-hearted, but economics is a science that helps evaluate our actions in terms of trade-offs. And understanding the trade-offs involved in hopeless rescues informs us of the opportunity costs we forgo. 

The resources used to search for the missing sub could have been employed in other uses, some of which we may never know about given the choices that were made. People involved in searching for hikers lost for weeks after a snowstorm could have been employed to ensure the safety of other outdoor enthusiasts. And soldiers who pull their dead comrades off the front lines during active firefights seems to be the least efficient choice that one could make, particularly considering that the soldier involved in the rescue will increase his risk of death for no potential gain against the enemy.

So why do we waste precious resources in the face of futile outcomes?

Despite its dismal reputation for subjecting human events to sterile cost-benefit calculations, economics may still provide a more humane answer for why we attempt to save one another when all hope is lost. Indeed, understanding this explanation may actually rescue the economics profession itself from an undeserved reputation as being coldly calculating.

Is Rescue Beyond Hope Really Inefficient?

If you asked the average person on the street why we continue to search for individuals who we know are dead, you are likely to be greeted with a horrified look. “We keep looking because we care, and because it is the right proper and humane thing to do!” That gut reaction is baked into our human psychology. Even when pressed that resources used for futile rescues could be used to help other living humans in distress, the reaction would unlikely change. Triage is an emotionally difficult concept even if it is rationally efficient.

But searching beyond the point of no return can still be rationally efficient in a longer-term perspective.

Consider that we live in a world of uncertainty and potential danger. Disaster could strike any of us at any time, be it an unexpected event such as an earthquake or the result of a risky activity that we knowingly entered into such as a deep-sea dive. If we were in that position, and facing near-certain death, we would most certainly want others to spare no expense in saving us. After all, if we saw the Grim Reaper on the horizon approaching us, cost-benefit calculations about alternative uses of resources becomes a moot point.

Even if death were absolutely certain, we hope that our remains would be recovered for a proper burial and remembrance. Our species, irrespective of culture, is not one to simply abandon the dead. For many, this is a religious obligation. But even atheists are reluctant just to be dumped in a ditch to rot. Treating the dead with respect tells the living that their lives are worth remembering.

However, if we want others to exert all efforts to save or recover us, we need to show a commitment that we would do the same for them. Alas, this creates a free-rider problem in the typical economic sense. I prefer others to rescue me at all cost, but I might myself be reluctant to use my valuable resources to save others. If everyone thought similarly, there would be nobody to rescue anybody. Somehow, we need to overcome this problem and create a societal assurance that in your time of most dire need, someone will be there for you.

One can understand how this works on the battlefield. Soldiers who know that members of their platoon will risk all to bring them out of harm’s way (or recover their body for a proper burial) are likely to fight harder. Boot camp is about building this camaraderie and assuring everyone that you won’t be left to die alone.

To that end, we celebrate individuals who go above and beyond the call of rational duty. These people become idols, and we tell tales of their heroism and erect statues. The person who gave all they had is remembered more than the one who made the most optimally efficient choice.

And more relevant for the case of the Titan submersible disaster, when it is known that the world is watching, sending a signal that there are those who will go to the ends of the earth to save you is important. We need such reassurances on the big stage.

Granted, a cynical libertarian/anarchist, of which I often count myself as, may object that the Titan rescue was merely a ploy to justify large budgets for the Coast Guard and/or to put a more human sheen on faceless bureaucracy. Perhaps. But in such extreme instances, the message that we search beyond hope may well temper such cynicism. And for the libertarian crowd, it is important to realize that a substantial portion of search and rescue is often conducted by civil society volunteers. A culture that promotes sacrifice for others will be a more prosperous one. 

Hopeless Rescue Promotes Risk Taking, and That’s Good. 

We do not rescue past hope merely to assure others of their rescue, though. We do it to incentivize risk as well. This sounds rather counter-intuitive and raises the issue of moral hazard wherein sheltering people from the consequences of poor choices only promotes more poor choices. Nevertheless, promoting risk is important for prosperous societies. 

Imagine a world where rescue attempts end early based upon some probabilistic cost-benefit algorithm. Once the likelihood of death exceeds 75 percent, let’s say, the search is called off. There most certainly would be fewer individuals willing to take risks with their safety if they knew no one would be there to save them in the most dire of circumstances. Yes, this may be beneficial in reducing foolish choices, but it also would tamp down a spirit of adventure. 

Economies grow and thrive through innovation. Entrepreneurs place life savings on the line to chase the possibility of a better product or service, ignoring the safe choice. There are a great many failures in this process, but the success stories often provide immeasurable benefits to society as a whole. And risk-taking is not merely an actuarial calculation to play the long odds, but rather is as a character trait formed by a culture that encourages taking chances on fanciful ideas. The alternative is a bubble-wrapped society that hides from every danger. The result is often economically devastating. 

Of course, if we promote risk taking there are certainly going to be those who take foolish risks. Whether the CEO of OceanGate engaged in a foolhardy endeavor will be revealed in time. The fact that his choices did end in death and disaster doesn’t bode well for a sympathetic hearing. Nonetheless, many individuals were inspired by his “Why can’t I do this?” spirit. We likely will learn from any mistakes made, but what is important is that the desire to dare remains strong in society.

And that desire to dare is fostered by a knowledge that others will be there to help when things go wrong.

Why do we rescue beyond hope? Because we want people to keep hoping, dreaming, and taking chances on a better world. It is dangerous and may be inefficient, but it is what makes us prosperous human beings.

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill is a professor of political economy at the University of Washington and a Distinguished Senior Fellow with Baylor University’s Institute for the Study of Religion.

Earning his PhD in political science at UCLA in 1994, Prof. Gill specializes in the economic study of religion and civil society.

He received the UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1999 and is also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

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