"We can't sacrifice lives for the economy."

in #economy2 years ago


Let's momentarily set aside the difficult ways that "lives" and "the economy" are intertwined. We all agree that they are, and if we're being careful we should probably admit that we don't know just which pandemic-related entanglements we need to worry about, or to what degree. We have nothing like a good empirical map of that territory; we have only a few landmarks that we know we need to avoid, and not nearly enough guidance about how near or far they might be, or which actions might steer us in what direction.

But we can still analyse the statement in other ways. Consider, for instance, that we already do sacrifice lives for the economy. Constantly. All of us. And we're mostly fine with it. We just do it in areas that are of little moral concern right now.

For example, it wouldn't be impossible to set a strict speed limit of ten miles per hour for all cars in the United States, and to decree mandatory speed governors to make certain that the limit was observed. Deaths from auto accidents would drop pretty much to zero the day the policy was implemented. So would economic activity.*

One way to talk about that policy--a wise and accurate way--would be to call it an outrageous affront to individual liberty. We don't need to be able to trace out the exact theoretical extent of a proper natural liberty in all things to appreciate that this policy is way, way over the line. Common sense alone seems to make the 10-mph speed limit a nonstarter for just about all of us.

Another way to talk about that policy--more roundabout but certainly not wrong--is to observe that it represents an extreme case selected from one of the far edges of an otherwise quite broad spectrum of possible trade offs. A quite different but also edgy policy might opt for maximal speed and minimal safety in all situations.

We don't do that either, and it's for a similar reason. Even as the safety-first edge case looks like an awful dystopia, few would call it "liberty" if the law let you travel a residential street at 100mph. And no one could call such a setup ordered liberty.

In practice we opt for somewhere in the middle, and for a (hopefully) mild enforcement regime. (Yes, I know, it's not mild, or fair, for everyone. If only it were!)

Middle-ground policies, mildly enforced, make possible both a liberty to be found while following the law--and also sometimes a liberty to be found while not following the law. Such policies seem to allow individuals a share of authorship over their own lives while also achieving a degree of never-perfect social coordination. Sometimes the one must give, and sometimes the other. We all know that the edges are off limits--because something like "a life of relative freedom while enjoying the advantages of life with others" must surely lie somewhere in between.

So... What pandemic responses look more like what we actually do for auto fatalities, and less like the imaginary edge cases that we might be tempted to posture about?

*Don't protest that with a 10-mph speed limit, air pollution would go through the roof, and more would die later, and that we therefore can't aim merely at zero deaths from auto accidents. You would be correct to say all of that. But if you're astute enough to make that point, then you are astute enough to appreciate that the analogous zero-tolerance approach to deaths from coronavirus is also bound to be a bad one. Zero is not the optimal number of people to die from the virus, monstrous as that may sound. We'd need to ask what getting to zero would look like--and it isn't a pretty picture.



I love the analogy of the "car and speed limit" you gave in this context.

Middle-ground policies, mildly enforced, make possible both a liberty to be found while following the law

I very well agree with you on this. I remember what a friend once told me that "policies are meant for people to obey, not disobeyed". In this case, middle-ground policies will be more likely obeyed than the ones with obvious straitjackets.

Nice piece here.

Please stay safe