How much does a hitman cost? Or a slave? Shocking figures about the price of human life

Gun for hire: Jean Reno as the titular hitman in 1994 film Léon, with Natalie Portman
Gun for hire: Jean Reno as the titular hitman in 1994 film Léon, with Natalie Portman - Alamy

Jenny Kleeman is a journalist with a keen eye for thought-provoking stories. She writes long-form magazine journalism of the finest kind. The title of her first book, Sex Robots & Vegan Meat (2020), indicates the sort of thing she’s interested in. Think Jon Ronson meets Louis Theroux, in the style of Joan Didion.

The Price of Life collects articles published in various forms over several years, which have a simple collective premise: Kleeman sets out to investigate the cost of taking a life, saving a life, creating a life and “compensating for a life taken”. She analyses 12 very different prices: the average cost of hiring a hitman (£15,180); the world’s most expensive weapons system (F-35 fighter jets cost $100m each); the cost to society of an average murder, as estimated by the Home Office (£3,217,740); the average cost of life insurance (£200,000); the cost of criminal injury compensation in the UK (£11,000); the cost of biological parenthood, ranging from IVF treatment to surrogacy (£13,750 – or $200,000); the cost of saving an African life, according to some philanthropic models ($2,000-$3,000); the permitted annual cost of life-saving drug treatment on the NHS (£20,000-£30,000); the cost of the Covid lockdowns in the UK, in terms of total extra government borrowing divided by the number of life-years saved (£180,000); the average ransom demand ($368,901); the price of a slave ($400, based on the going rate for migrant labour in Libya); and the cost of a cadaver in the USA ($5,000).

Some of these figures are sketchy, but this is partly a book about quantification and accounting principles: how do we come up with these numbers? What, for example, are the costs of the consequence of a crime, the costs in anticipating a crime, and the costs in response to a crime? At the same time, Kleeman, as she admits, is not really “a numbers person”: what she’s really interested in are the big moral questions. “Every time a life-saving measure is judged to be too expensive – a piece of cutting-edge medical research, a product recall on a faulty car, or a new childproof cap on a bottle of bleach, putting more lifeboats on the Titanic, or keeping hard shoulders on our motorways instead of turning them into extra lanes – we reveal the limits of what we think a human life is worth.”

She’s also interested in the people who make the calculations, the “philanthropists, judges, police chiefs, businesses, charities, actuaries, healthcare providers, policymakers and criminals”, the people who spend their time considering “unthinkable things”. Their stories form the basis of the book. There are weapons manufacturers, insurance fraudsters, kidnap-and-ransom (K&R) insurance specialists, “body brokers”, grieving families of those who have been murdered. There’s an actual hitman, who takes Kleeman out to dinner in a fancy restaurant.

The most disturbing chapters in the book focus on the victims of knife crime and the London Bridge terror attacks, and the different sums their families receive in compensation, according to who they are, where they’re from and exactly how they died. Those stabbed by the London Bridge attackers, for example, according to one expert, “can expect to five or 10 per cent of the compensation awarded to those run over by the same terrorist driving the van”. Why? Because the van-rental company made an insurance settlement.

“I now know,” Kleeman writes, “that, as a British woman in my forties, my life is neither worth saving by the world’s richest philanthropists nor enslaving by human traffickers. The NHS is prepared to spend at least a million pounds on treatments that will keep me alive for the rest of my live, given the average female life expectancy. For the next few years at least, my eggs and womb will make my body far more valuable than a man’s, but my cadaver will be worth the same as any other after I’m dead.”

The Price of Life is published by Picador at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books