Here’s a thought experiment. Consider two possible worlds, A and B. World A has more freedom, higher levels of happiness, and less misery than world B. But world B has a slightly less deaths per year than A. Life expectancy is about a year higher in B than A. Suppose, for example, that it’s 81 in A, and 82 in B. Which world would you prefer to live in? Most people are intuitively going to prefer A. (I’m supposing that there are no hidden horrors in world A.)
This shows us that avoiding death, or living longer is not the most important thing in life for us, or at least, it’s not the be-all and end-all for us. Obviously it’s very important, and clearly we value it extremely highly. But it’s not like it outweighs everything else. It will be a complex matter, deciding which bundle of goods, and in what proportions, we would prefer, and what trade-offs we would prefer in the inevitable absence of perfect worlds that we can inhabit. And, of course, different people will differ on these things. But in general we can say that for almost everyone, avoidance of death doesn’t trump every other consideration.
(Just to be clear, I’m not arguing for any sort of crude and callous utiliarianism which says that it’s all right for the government or private companies to, say, murder people for some supposed ‘greater good’, or anything like that.)
Think of it this way. If we were asked to decide on a personal utility score for worlds A and B, there would be various things you’d rate, at various levels. Life expectancy would be one of them, and it would be very important, maybe even the most important for most people, but it wouldn’t be the only thing that contributed to the utility score for each world. Of course, you may set up your utility score that the lower the life expectancy is than a certain year, the more negative the utility score (the disutility) goes. You may even have this set up so that it works in an exponential manner. A world with a life expectancy of, say 75, scores a bit less than a world where it’s 81, but a world with a life expectancy of 45 scores enormously lower.
Anyway, whatever the details, you get the picture. We can’t make everything about death. I’m not even talking about the fact that if we focus too much on doing whatever it takes to avoid a death and not enough on things like prosperity then inevitably deaths start increasing whether you like it or not, because less prosperous countries have lower life expectancy. I’m talking about the fact that even apart from this, there are other things that matter in life. Happiness matters. Careers matter. Families matter. Love matters. Dreams matter. And freedom matters. It matters whether you live your life in fear and terror, like in so many Communist countries, or whether you are free to express your own beliefs. It matters whether you can go to shops where there is plenty of food, or whether you must queue for hours just to get a loaf of bread. It matters whether you are free to take the air if you wish, or visit friends or family, without needing a government permit to do so. It matters whether there is some stability in the business environment, or whether a government can just destroy perfectly good and healthy economic sectors as they see fit.
All these sorts of things must be taken into account when we weigh up the rights and wrongs of public policy. The one thing we cannot say is that everything else must be sacrificed to save just one death.
People who do risk-benefit analysis face this issue all the time. Even in this modern world where possible deaths are, in my view, given too much prominence over freedoms, it is recognised by the risk-benefit analysts that you cannot prioritise every possible death without harming too many other things of value. Here’s an example given by Andrew Lilico:
Some years ago I led a study for the European Union considering its rules on chemicals in toys. If we made the rules more restrictive, fewer children would die but it would become more expensive to produce the toys so fewer poor children would get toys. I had to devise ways to help policymakers trade off the risk of more child deaths versus fewer poor children getting toys at all, so as to find the optimal compromise. I do not accept my devising such a calculus was callous.
You cannot ban every possible chemical that might kill someone because in doing so you harm the economy too much, and impinge on the happiness of many people. Even though in the modern world the pendulum is swinging very much (too much, in my view) towards the ‘Death overrides everything else’ view — especially with chemicals — it hasn’t quite managed to win out, because explicitly adopting that view would be impossible. It would mean banning almost everything, because almost anything can kill someone. So that view is nonsensical. Anyone who says it should not be taken seriously. We must make trade-offs between deaths and other things. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool.
So our general principle is vindicated. But that, of course, is hardly the end of the matter. For one thing there will be disagreement on how such trade-offs should be achieved. But, more importantly, modern safety culture is constantly pushing the views of policymakers, and people in positions like Lilico’s, towards the side of excessive safety. The view of most members of the enlightened class these days is that safety takes priority, and risks must continually be eliminated. A possible death overrides almost everything.
Or, more specifically, it overrides those things that they’re not keen on. They’re remarkably unconcerned about possible deaths resulting from things they like, such as climate change initiatives. Safety culture has thrived mainly because the leftists and the wannabe world rulers like Bill Gates have found that it is a useful weapon to advance their own interests. That is why, no matter how keen you are on safety issues, and no matter how worried you are about your loved ones dying from coronavirus, it is important not to let our liberties vanish, and not to let the state get away with a massive and sudden power grab, under the cover of ‘We must do whatever it takes to protect people from coronavirus’. There are some things we should do yes, but not ‘whatever it takes’.