Will you accept the proposition?
Likely yes, though with some trepidation. Remaining alive, after all, is a big deal.
Now, for a little muddling of the details.
We’ll save your life, which you’re in little danger of losing. By the way, you’ll still lose your livelihood. Will you accept the proposition?
You will likely answer no, but what about the guy or gal to your left and right?
We know the answer. A depressingly many Americans have answered yes to the second proposition regarding the coronavirus pandemic. The vast majority are in little danger of losing their lives, yet they’ve been strong-armed into being saved, nonetheless. Many will bear the cost of livelihood forever lost.
Given the sorry state of economic teaching, and thus economic understanding, we should accept that most people look no further than the tips of their nose when contemplating the future and the benefits and costs therein. When coronavirus is the subject, only a panorama dominated by scarlet, bold-type-font headlines chronicling the ever-rising coronavirus infections and death counts resides at the nose’s tip. That’s the mooring for most.
Coronavirus is a coughing-hacking-feverish disease, so comparisons to another coughing-hacking-feverish disease, the perennial influenza, is naturally conjured. Unlike the flu, the coronavirus introduces an aggravating variable. Its progression through society is punitively geometric.
A million dollars today or a penny that doubles in value daily? Those of us familiar with geometric progression know you take the penny. The penny’s initial growth appears trivial at the outset. Terminal velocity soon takes over. By the time you reach day 30, the magically compounding pennies are $4 million clear of $1 million.
Of course, we’re dealing with something quite different. We are dealing with people subjected to a virus with the capacity to incapacitate and kill. Everything looks benign at the start, but a locust-swarm of cases emerges in only a couple of weeks. Those leery of the dangers that lurk in geometric ascension point to Northern Italy for the need to order house arrest for those of us with higher risk tolerance. (Those of us willing and wanting to get on with living.)
Let’s concede that the number of coronavirus afflictions will compound to a similar degree in the United States as they have in Italy. Does that fact alone warrant a countrywide shutdown of unknown length?
Government bureaucrats, buttressed by experts whose predictive abilities few question, say yes. No surprise here. Errors of omission frightened the sinecure-secure bureaucrat more than errors of commission. The prospect of another thalidomide is burned deep into the bureaucratic psyche.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAIDS), is the face of the coronavirus bureaucracy in the United States. Fauci, a bureaucrat immune to income insecurity, implores the government and everyone else do anything required to manage the number of people infected. Fauci asserts that “we should be very aggressive [in combating coronavirus] and make a point of overreacting.”
Overreacting is in the eye of the beholder: To the party-seeking college junior, overreacting is closing South Beach during spring break. To the network-news-watching tetchy grandpa, overreacting is hermetically sealing the house with everyone inside (though even this is debatable as an overreaction). Both act in their interest from their respective perspectives.
Coronavirus has proven to be a discriminating killer. The elderly are most at risk. They are joined by the obese and others saddled with serious preexisting conditions: diabetes, emphysema, heart disease, high blood pressure. This is hardly a revelation. Like a lion pride on the prowl, any virus or bacterium takes down the weakest first, thus the weak must always be vigilant.
Beyond the tip of the nose resides everything else: the every bit as relevant unseen, unquantifiable existence that Frederic Bastiat championed a 170 years ago.
The strong – the majority immune to or only mildly inconvenienced by the coronavirus – garner few headlines. Those with only a mild fever, body aches, and chills – as Tom Hanks relates – go largely unnoticed, as does the under-20 crowd.
That said, the death-to-confirmed-cases ratio appears ominous at 4.7% at last calculation. But as so often is the case, the numbers as reported cloud the perspective. The coronavirus walking wounded – the unconfirmed -- likely exceed the count by a multiple approaching 10. An Oxford University study suggests that the hospitalization (not death) ratio is 1 to every 1,000 cases.
But this time is different, at least that’s what the models say. Fauci’s model says 100,000 to 200,000 U.S. coronavirus dead. (Dead because of the coronavirus or dead with it?)
Are Fauci et al. grasping at only the most desired feathers in the wind? Models are biased-infused projections. How often have the experts and their models been spectacularly wrong when portending catastrophe? More often than you think. History has proven that the egregiousness of the error correlates positively with the ominousness of the prophecy.
I am unsure if Bastiat ever referred to the unseen as the “unfelt.” I refer to the distress experienced by otherwise healthy individuals who have been cold-cocked by a massive, purposeful comatosing of business worldwide. The directives from the state border on torture: Don’t socialize, don’t engage, don’t go to work, don’t trade, don’t move, don’t touch. Stop whatever you are doing and do nothing. In short, assume a houseplant’s existence.
You can be sure that many unseen Americans have been psychologically crippled by the mass infusion of nihilism. Who can quantify the number of casualties that occur because of despair, isolation, hopelessness? How do you measure the inevitable rise in suicide, physical ailments, alcoholism, and mental illness induced by government commission?
But it’s only temporary, so we’ve been assured. Just hang in there. But is it only temporary? Even if government is willing to revive many businesses as soon as April 30 (previously April 12), who can be revived?
Again, we have to consider the unseen. The economy is both unmeasurable and unquantifiable. It is not a thing, such as an engine. The economy is a process of human interaction. The process comprises a vast, appallingly complex network of interconnected human activity.
A functioning business is a microcosm of the complexity. Its existence and success, in large degree, depend on entrepreneurial skill, habit, rhythm, and momentum. Business relationships are human relationships. The relationships arise organically. They continually evolve.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It can also induce the heart to seek satisfaction elsewhere. Many business-customer relationships are sure to change, but how and to what degree, who can know? The nostrums proposed by the bureaucrats and their economist enablers fail to consider these niggling, but important, details. The passing of time and the changing of circumstances guarantee that what worked at business inception will unlikely work to revive a comatose business.
We have the seen: thousands of sick coronavirus patients – almost all sure to live. We see the aggregated numbers on unemployment, cases confirmed, and deaths. A sparse few consider the unseen: the current cost associate associated with the heightened misery experienced by millions of sentient individuals.
By all means, save as many coronavirus-inflicted lives as possible, but only under the sobering pretext that resources are scarce. The costs – seen and unseen – should always be weighed against the benefits. To attempt to save every life no matter the cost is not only lunacy, it’s a fantasy. I suspect that Frederic Bastiat would concur.