There is nothing over which a free man ponders less than death; his wisdom is, to meditate not on death but on life.
– Baruch Spinoza
Out of the Frying-Pan, into the Fire.
You’ve probably heard of the trolley problem: a runaway train is about to hit a family of five, and you happen to be walking past a lever that, if pulled, diverts the train onto a track where the train will hit a single person. One can ask the question: would you pull the lever? Or the related normative question: would you condemn someone who does nothing? Or the more concrete legal question: should one be prosecuted if they choose to do nothing?
Even if you consider this to be a trite thought experiment with little bearing on reality (I do not), I think it is a useful lens through which to see politics. In this view, politics is not choosing option a because all the experts agree option a is clearly superior to option b (if that was the case, what use is there to politicians at all? Just poll the experts on every issue). It is instead, deciding what to do when one expert says a > b and another expert says b > a.
Let’s say you’re a politician deciding on what to do in response to COVID-19: you have an epidemiologist and an economist in a room. The epidemiologist says: shut down all businesses and use all measures possible to ensure people stay home for at least 30 days. The economist says: a complete worldwide peacetime economic shutdown is unprecedented and could have many unforeseen consequences on the poorest strata of society, even with substantial government aid. The epidemiologist retorts: if we don’t do this, millions may die unnecessarily over the next six months. The economist responds: if we do do this, even more millions might die unnecessarily, but it will happen slowly, over decades.
What would you do? I certainly have no answers and I don’t envy our political leaders. I do, however, think there are a few things that are important in these considerations that seem to be lost in the current pandemonium (especially in the online rhetoric). First: our world is a fragile interconnected place and the economic ramifications operate on a much longer timescale than those of a viral pandemic. Second: the government and the military, the power plants, the farms, the transit systems, the grocery stores, the hospitals, the sewer plants, and everything else ‘essential’ to modern society is made up of and run by people just like you (perhaps you are one of these people) and me. If these people feel unsafe to go to work, shut downs will be very different. Third: overreacting may be worse than doing nothing. That does not mean we should do nothing. However, let’s not be so quick to relinquish basic freedoms, liberties and democratic principles just to `do something’.
To borrow a phrase from sports psychology, let’s be quick but let’s not hurry. One of the many tragedies of this pandemic is that it, by its nature, draws people apart. We must find ways to pull together lest we let a few powerful people pull levers that may eventually draw us even further apart.