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CoronaVirus, Ethics, and Government Policy (Part 2): The “Impossible Dilemma” Excuse For Economic Suicide

March 29, 2020 by  

North America is now weeks into governmental measures to keep “non-essential” businesses closed and to keep people in their homes. Fears and anxiety caused by the initial hoardings of toilet paper and other goods now are having to share the stage with fears and anxiety caused by the inevitable deepening economic devastation caused by those measures.

Faced with the rise of the latter fears, politicians are beginning to worry. On one hand, they have told the populace that it is right for us all to sacrifice for the good of the people who are vulnerable to the disease caused, in some, by the Coronavirus: Covid-19. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly obvious to all that the government’s shut-down of the economy is not practical. The question for politicians is: How do I now justify ending the governmental policy that I’ve already told everyone is the right and moral thing to do without being morally condemned for it? Alternatively, how do I justify not ending the shut-down without looking like I’m impractical?

“An Impossible Dilemma”

Enter the “impossible dilemma” idea. “An impossible dilemma” reads the headline on the front page of the massive Saturday, March 27, 2020 edition of Toronto Star newspaper. The paper is quoting one Nicola Lacetera, the chief scientist at the Behavioural Economics in Action centre at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Lacetera is referring to a choice between ending the government’s current economy-strangling responses to the the spread of the CoronaVirus, and continuing those responses. According to his claim, policy-makers face an “impossible dilemma” because, whether they continue the economic shut-down or end it, people will be harmed.

The Star attributes to Lacetera the view that “the debate” – between continuing or discontinuing the economic shut-down – “will revolve around the values society considers absolute, and those it decides can be compromised.” In other words, allegedly faced with the impossible, he expects that politicians now will begin to advocate some sort of compromise. However, if politicians explicitly compromise on their ethics – if they come right out and say that we must end the economic shut down even though the shut-down is altruistic – they face the very real prospect of being called morally corrupt.

Politicians need another way of compromising. They need a way that does not look like it involves a violation, by the politician, of the ethical code that gave rise to the economic shut-down; one that will leave the gullible public with the impression that – whether they do a 180 degree reversal on the economic shut-down policy or not – their governmental leaders have neither compromised their ethics nor embraced the impractical.

Enter Economics

Their answer, as is usual, will be to defer to economists. Specifically, those who want to end the economic shut-down without appearing immoral are now are replacing ethics – which is chock full of clear, uncompromisable rules – with a science that is portrayed to be devoid of ethical philosophy and to be committed to determining the right course of action quantitatively.

It is no coincidence that the Toronto Star includes, in the article with Lacetera, quotations of three (unnamed) economists in the aforementioned Toronto Star article (whose names I’ve discovered to be Martin Eichenbaum, Sérgio Rebelo, Mathias Trabandt). These three fellows authored an article titled “The Macroeconomics of Epidemics“. The three economists submit, in the Star article, that:

“Those containment measures cause a large recession. But this recession is worth incurring in the hope that the vaccination arrives before many people get infected.”

The problem with the strategy of deferring to economists is that economic judgments are always implicitly laden with moral judgments. Moreover, every economic recommendation can be morally evaluated.

Note the word “worth” in the quotation of the three economists, above. To say that a “large recession” is “worth” the hope it buys is to assert that it is morally right to cause the large recession. I haven’t read the three economists’ article, but it does not matter why they think the recession is worth the hope. Whatever the reason – whether it will minimize economic losses, maximize the number of saved lives, or what have you – to assert that X should be done to achieve Y is to assert that doing X is morally the right thing to do.

My point is that to replace “it’s the moral thing to do” with “it’s the economic thing to do” is not to replace ethics with economics. It is to replace one person’s moral judgment (say, that of a physician) with another person’s moral judgment (that of an economist).

Thus far, politicians have been deferring to physicians and virologists. They have not merely sought data. They have essentially allowed physicians and virologists to set public policy. A physician’s whole role in professional life is to ease pain and help prevent death. When that is translated into social matters, life-saving ends up trumping all-else. All other considerations must be sacrificed to the physician’s life-saving role. Sacrificing of yourself so that the physicians’ patients are less likely to die is held to be the right thing to do; the moral thing to do. Consequently, when the government allows medical professionals to set public policy – as they have – they necessary end up with policy founded upon an altruist ethics which deems it morally right for non-patients and won’t-be patients to sacrifice their businesses and jobs (none of which are of any medical interest) so as to save the patients and will-be patients.

Now, seeing the economic damage being done by their economic shut-down policy, politicians appear ready to defer to economists. Will this change anything fundamental? It’s unlikely.

You will note that the three aforementioned economists’ paper concerned “macroeconomics”, not “microeconomics”. Their concern is not for what decisions are right for any one individual, but for what decisions are right for everyone, considered as a unified whole. It is a necessarily collectivist point of view, hence a point of view in which the rights and interests of the individual are trumped by the alleged pursuit of the good for the collective. In other words: the lives, liberty, and property of the individual are dispensible concerns for the economist whose interest is the collective good. They are things that the individual is expected to sacrifice for whatever “greater good” is identified by the economist.

Replacing the altruistic public policy of physicians with the altruistic public policy of economists will yield the same collectivist sacrifice of the individual to the collective. The allocation of the wealth stolen from all for the alleged good of the collective might be distributed differently by economists than it would be by physicians, but the basic principle of wealth redistribution from those who earn to those who do not shows no signs of exiting.

Economics Is Trusted Because It Purports To Be Amoral, Scientific

Despite the fact that economics is implicitly and inescapably guided by ethics and subject to moral evaluation, economics is widely and erroneously viewed as amoral. The policy recommendations of economists are often taken to be respectable not because they are moral, but because they are thought to be “scientific”, economically practical, and purportedly immune to the ethical influences or judgments that some find objectionable or divisive. Indeed, the majority of today’s libertarians take their guidance not from ethical philosophers – because libertarians disagree on ethics – but from economists. The libertarians, like so many other misguided or deluded folks, view economics as a way of knowing what one should do without having to consider what one morally ought to do…as though “should” and “morally ought” were different things.

Though politicians will now begin resorting to what economists are saying as a way of dealing with their allegedly “impossible” ethical dilemma, the fact of that matter is that if a politician acts upon an economist’s recommendation that the economic shut-down be ended, it will remain the case that the politician has done an anti-altruistic thing. And, if a politician acts upon an economist’s recommendation that the economic shut-down not be ended, it will remain the case that the politician has done an impractical thing. Politicians cannot escape moral or practical culpability by founding their decisions upon the recommendations of economists. The “economists made me do it” is no more convincing, to a rational person, than “The Devil made me do it”.

Tracing It Back: Altruism Is The Root Issue”

Let us assume that the altruism ultimately will yield to practical reality (as it always does for those who continue to live). Let us trace this backward before going further forward. A politician cites from economists a recommendation to end the economic shut-down because economic advice appears morally neutral (even though it isn’t). By acting on purportedly morally-neutral economic advice, the politician hopes to avoid moral condemnation for reversing a policy that was founded upon the altruistic philosophy that underpins the economic shut-down; a philosophy that has been adopted because politicians have been deferring to physicians, whose profession requires them to make life-saving the only priority; a philosophy that ends up sacrificing the lives, liberties, and property of the governed. The politician seeks a reversal of policy because it turns out that the altruistic policy of saving lives by shutting down the entire economy is not practical. The policy is not practical because altruism itself holds not the the pursuit of one’s own happiness, but the sacrifice of oneself to others, as the highest virtue and purpose of ones life.

Self-sacrifice is not self-preservation. If nobody is preserving himself, and everybody is sacrificing to everybody else, nothing gets produced. Altruism is a philosophy diametrically opposed to making and acting upon the decisions that aim to help one survive on this earth and achieve happiness. It is a philosophy attractive to something-for-nothingers, who hope that they will get more than they contribute amidst the orgy of sacrifice, and it is attractive to those who are trying to earn their wings in Heaven (most religions demand an altruistic life as the ticket to an after-life of effortless bliss). However, it cannot be reconciled with economic prosperity, and medical services cannot exist in the absence of economic prosperity. The commitment of our policy makers to founding policy on an altruist ethics is the root killer in this whole ugly fiasco.


A Commitment to Altruism Is What Gives Rise To An “Impossible Dilemma”

A commitment to altruism is also the only thing that makes an “impossible” ethical dilemma possible. Think of it like this: When you come to a fork at the end of Altruist Road, and both forks lead to a dead end, it is not the case that you face an “impossible dilemma” and must therefore follow one of the forks. You have an alternative. Your alternative is to turn around and get off of Altruist Road. But if you are committed to staying on Altruist Road, you are committing yourself also to a dead end.

So it is with respect to the making of public policy in response to Coronavirus. By shutting down the economy, the government bankrupts employers and employees, ruining lives. By not shutting down the economy, a virus spreads more quickly, potentially causing more demand for health care services than can be supplied at one time, which potentially leads to more deaths from Coronavirus infection. Those are the two forks in the road – each leading to a dead end – when the government founds its public policy upon an altruistic ethics.

Such is not the case if one doesn’t go down that road. Ethical dilemmas do not arise when a government’s policies are founded upon a rational egoist ethical philosophy. Under that philosophy, the government respects that every individual’s highest purpose is the pursuit of his own happiness on this earth, in this life. The government acknowledges that, to pursue one’s own happiness successfully, one must be free to make the choices that, in the long run, may result in the achievement of one’s own happiness. The government acknowledges that one is not free if others can take one’s life, liberty, or property without one’s consent. And the government, when it is operating on a rational egoist ethics, makes laws to prevent others from taking one’s life, liberty, or property without one’s consent. It does not make laws that take one’s life, liberty, or property without one’s consent.

Now, consider, from the rational egoist perspective, the decision either to continue the government’s shut-down of the economy, or to end it. If the government chooses to strangle the economy, it is deliberately choosing to harm millions of people: it is taking lives, liberties, and property from people, which is contrary to the rational egoist ethics. Choosing to take that path is choosing to deny people the means of pursuing their own survival and happiness. It is what rational egoism deems the wrong/evil choice.

However, if the government chooses to end the economic shut-down – if it allows people to take personal responsibility for their healthcare decisions (including decisions about whether to open or close one’s business; or decisions about how much to expose one’s self to other people) – it is acting perfectly consistently with the rational egoist ethics. It is defending every individual’s freedom to make choices that may or may not be self-harming, while defending every individual from those who might attempt to take away the individual’s freedom to choose. Choosing to take that path is choosing to defend every individual’s means of survival. It is what rational egoism deems the right/good choice.

In the context of CoronaVirus policy, the implications for alleged moral dilemmas are clear. If every individual’s highest purpose is to pursue his own happiness by rational means – i.e., by means that do not involve taking another person’s life, liberty, or property without her consent – then those who are in need of medical services have no desire to attempt to survive by taking the lives, liberties, or property of other people without their consent. Nor do they want the government to engage in such vicious conduct on their behalf. Nor does the government fail to make a moral choice when it decides not to engage in such policy, even if the goal of the policy is to save someone’s life. There are some means that one never resorts to, for any end, if one is moral by the rational egoist standard. As a result, one never ends up faced with a moral dilemma. By acting in accordance with rational egoism, the government is acting morally for the ill and the non-ill alike. The interests of the ill and the non-ill are the same: to be free.

The Government Has Authored Its Own Dilemma: It Is Not Excusable

In deciding upon public policy in response to Coronavirus, our governments have maintained a commitment to making decisions on an altruistic ethical foundation. Altruism being impractical, the politicians now feel that they face an “impossible” ethical dilemma. However, that dilemma would not exist but for the government’s commitment to an altruistic ethics. Consequently, our policy-makers are the authors of the dilemma they now claim to face. Being the authors, they cannot use the dilemma as an excuse for the decisions that they make going forward, whether they decide to continue the economic shut-down or end it.

Were our policy makers to commit themselves to founding public policy upon a rational egoist ethical base, there could be no moral dilemma. There would be no need to use economics as a purportedly amoral excuse for reversing course and ending the economic shut-down. Our policy makers could assert, with complete moral fidelity, that by ending the economic shut-down, they are doing not merely the practical thing, but the morally right thing.

If they are not to be condemned morally in the history books, today’s policy-makers would be well-advised to change their ethical footing without delay. In truth, they require not an excuse for violating altruist ethics, but an excuse for not doing so sooner.

{Paul McKeever is the leader of the Freedom Party of Ontario, in Canada}

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