The economy v our lives? It’s a false choice – and a deeply stupid one

Calls to reopen America have disturbing intellectual roots. And the millions of deaths that could ensue would fuel a depression beyond our imagination

Ancient Hebrew texts are peppered with references to and prohibitions against pre-Judaic practices associated with Moloch, a Canaanite god to whom children were sacrificed for the greater good.

Now, millennia later, there are prominent voices among us who propose sacrificing the old and weak among us at the altar of another false god – the global economy.

Suddenly, the ghosts of Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham have become priests for the 21st-century Moloch, and have haunted American public conversation about coronavirus.

Republican officials, conservative economists, unqualified pundits, and even the 73-year-old president of the United States have suggested that the short-term economic pain we have just begun inflicting on ourselves to slow the spread of coronavirus might cost too much, just to save the lives of a few million of our most vulnerable neighbors.

The University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, who served on President Trump’s council of economic advisers, told the New York Times that shutting down economic activity to slow the virus would be more damaging than doing nothing at all. He prefers some sort of weighing of the costs and benefits of saving lives.

“It’s a little bit like, when you discover sex can be dangerous, you don’t come out and say: there should be no more sex,” Mulligan said. “You should give people guidance on how to have sex less dangerously.”

And on Tuesday Trump announced that he wanted all US business back to normal levels of function by Easter, 12 April. “This cure is worse than the problem,” Trump said.

This is beyond immoral. It’s profoundly stupid. But this mode of thought is all too common among those who can’t see beyond their economic textbooks or their stock portfolios. And it has troubling intellectual roots.

In the late 18th century, Malthus warned that the poor would breed at a rate that would outpace the resources necessary to sustain a growing population, resulting in famine and misery. His predictions failed but were still deployed for decades to limit public amelioration of poverty.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Bentham promoted the idea that public moral decisions should be made to foster the greatest good for the greatest number, forging the calculus that has pushed policymakers and economists to invoke simplified “cost-benefit analyses” to decide if a measure is worthy of consideration.