One of the problems with lockdowns is that they carry a direct economic hit. Here in New Zealand, it’s been calculated this week at 37 percent for the complete ‘Level 4’ lock-down, and forecast at about 9 percent for the ‘nearly back to normal’ Level 2 into which the country is expected to go.
I used to work with the economists who crunched those numbers, and I see no reason to doubt their figures. In point of fact, the calculation isn’t as simple as the ‘EITHER lockdown OR economic crash’ to which it’s been popularly reduced around the world – but I’ll cover that next time. What I want to talk about this week is the ethics of the lockdown concept versus the personal financial hit.
There’s no question that a lockdown saves lives: it stops the virus spreading at a time when the virus itself is unknown, and where there is no vaccine. But it also causes an immediate financial hit to individuals. Small businesses struggle because it cuts the cashflow they need to pay staff, rental on premises and so forth. Sole traders find their income’s dried up. Government support – which, in New Zealand, has been generous – only works for the majority income pattern. Others have fallen through the cracks, including many writers (me included – please click on the links to the right and BUY MY BOOKS.)
So why are governments persisting with lockdowns despite knowing it will hurt people and destroy some businesses? The fact that a global economic downturn was due to happen anyway – and that a lockdown means it’ll happen without a pile of bodies attached to it – is one explanation. More on that next time. But in general, whatever a government does over the virus, it’ll be slammed for it. You know: the lockdown was too late; it wasn’t released early enough; it was released too soon; people before economy; economy before people. I need a haircut. That sort of thing.
How do decision-makers handle that? The answer I’ve seen applied in a number of countries, particularly New Zealand, is textbook Utilitarianism – an ethical approach championed over 200 years ago by Jeremy Bentham. It can be summed up as: ‘The needs of many outweigh those of a few.’ Spock uttered something like those words in The Wrath of Khan.
This is the principle governments have been using when it comes to lockdown: we’re facing a virus with a lot of unknowns, including the scale of its potential to kill or do permanent damage. What course of action delivers the greatest net benefit to the most people?
You see the issue: when dealing with a population, it’s impossible to help everybody, because individual cases differ. Decision-makers have to live with that. But the principle is ‘what course of action helps the majority’? And in that regard, I suspect the calculation has been that a financial hit won’t kill someone. Covid-19 might, especially if critical care beds are overwhelmed. The guiding principle has been medical advice, erring on the side of caution. And rightly so. Economies recover. But you’re a long time dead.
Utilitarianism isn’t perfect. A decision made today might be seen with hindsight to be wrong later. The rate at which discoveries are being made about Covid-19 means that decisions made even a month ago perhaps seem over-cautious now. Hindsight gives us 20:20 vision, but nobody can predict the future – and, as I say, the cost of getting it wrong is human life. Reduced to that level, applying cautious utilitarianism isn’t a big decision – is it?
I mean, what would Spock do?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020