Economists’ solutions to health crises can be disastrous
I’m writing this at 585,000 worldwide active cases, 26,000 deaths, and with only China and South Korea seemingly under some sort of control (using a social metric tool, Worldometer). The stimulus package announced by the US government is at $2 trillion, but without job protections, rent freezes, or meaningful income support for most people. Where to reach for analogies to help us understand the moment? The AIDS crisis? The 2008 economic crisis? SARS?
Every analogy can capture a part of the story. On March 23, US President Donald Trump floated the idea of sending everyone back to work within weeks, ignoring the advice of public health scientists. This echoed Jair Bolsonaro’s denialism in Brazil and Boris Johnson’s early talk of seeking “herd immunity” by “taking it on the chin,” which his ministers walked back a few days later. On this specific issue, the prioritizing of economic projections over scientific ones, there is one clear analogy with the last great empire: the British Empire, with its special penchant for the mass starvation of millions.
As the British Empire expanded in the 18th century, its intellectuals developed the perfect set of ideas for an empire: classical economics. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, after numerous genocidal wars against indigenous peoples in the Americas and at the beginning of the Empire in India.