Rein Raud: For true do death I'll ever be to big money

Rein Raud. Source: Private library

If anyone thinks that human lives are fundamentally less valuable than GDP, they should start by offering up their own, Rein Raud writes.

We can increasingly see opinions both in Estonian and world media to suggest that mankind should not go crazy combating the coronavirus crisis. It is said that people die all the time and that damage done to the economy by the quarantine is beginning to outweigh damage done by the virus in terms of human lives.

In their article (Eesti Päevaleht 13.04) (Link in Estonian), American college professors Peter Singer and Michael Plant go as far as agreeing with President Donald Trump who has said that the treatment is worse than the disease.

An early social media call against coronavirus quarantine measures in Estonia claimed that those killed by the virus are practically to blame because the disease is most dangerous to people in risk groups, while people find themselves in those risk groups because of their age or poor lifestyle choices. So, why should the healthy and the strong suffer for the safety of old people and other waifs and strays?

GDP has taken precedence over people's subsistence for virtually every single Estonian government, which is why it seems logical that the economy needs to keep going even if people are dying because of it.

Sometimes, it even feels that one line in the second verse of the national anthem should go: "For true to death I'll ever be to big money." That quarantine measures help save lives is a fact. The U.S. and South Korea diagnosed their first coronavirus patient on the same day, while deaths per one million people stand at 105 in the former and just four in the latter today (April 17 – ed). The figure is 132 for Sweden that decided to let things play out and just 14 in Finland that opted for tougher measures.

The figure for Estonia (27) could be lower today had representatives of the government refrained from initially telling people the coronavirus is an easygoing flu-like disease that can be overcome using folk medicine. This "cool heads" attitude soon led to the massive outbreak of COVID-19 that is currently ravaging the island of Saaremaa.

Therefore, the question is not whether measures are expedient or not – the question is whether a part of society needs to be prepared to die for the economy. And that is a decision we cannot make for someone else. If anyone thinks that human lives are fundamentally less valuable that GDP, they should start by offering up their own.

We limit ourselves all the time

We cannot very well imagine a cafeteria opening its doors in the middle of the Battle of Stalingrad that lasted for 163 days, saying that enough is enough and that while you can keep shooting in the street, we absolutely need to sell cutlets now.

It is clear that coronavirus isolation measures are causing serious problems for the economy overcoming of which might prove challenging and cause many of us to dial back recent habits of consumption. However, that does not mean we should dial back our stay in this world.

Of course, it is true that people also die in car crashes and of other diseases. But we still have speed limits without which far more people would perish, while it is forbidden to smoke in cafes, also for the purpose of sparing non-smokers who go there.

And even though one of the founding fathers of liberal market economy Ludwig von Mises wrote in his book "Liberalism" that hard drugs should be freely sold, even the most pro-market governments have not stopped putting people who trade in such substances behind bars. So what that potential tax revenue from the heroin trade could help build even more environmentally harmful factories.

This means that certain restrictions on human activity also exist under normal circumstances the aim of which is to prevent unnecessary risks for the health and safety of people and costs associated with such risks materializing.

The price of alcohol and tobacco includes a tax, revenue from which is used to contain health problems these substances cause. We could then imagine only allowing companies that agree to pay an additional tax to compensate for additional strain put on the healthcare system to leave the quarantine.

Others' lives at stake

What makes agitation in favor of opening the economy especially cynical is the fact that it would not hike risks for those who would do the opening but rather people forced to work in high-risk environments. The decision would be made by executives who would still be free to continue living in relative safety, while those robbed of that opportunity would be expected to gamble with their lives.

That I find ethically inadmissible. As mentioned before, if someone thinks it necessary to die for the economy, they can go right ahead, but they must not demand it of me or my loved ones.

There are only a few circumstances where the state can require its citizens to risk their lives, such as war, but even then, it must be in accordance with the National Defense Act. Society can decide, through its elected representatives, to aim the state budget at maintaining a number of vital systems and struggling enterprise is being supported everywhere in the world. But what we must not forget is that the economy exists for individuals and not the other way around.

Recent economic model not worth putting on life support

Current efforts to maintain the economic status quo are understandable insofar as we need to exit this sudden crisis as intact as possible. You cannot rebuild a plane that breaks down into something more modern midair.

However, provided we want to survive in the long run, we should at least try to see the bigger picture.

Perhaps it is time to consider reorganizing the economy and society more broadly? In a situation where our lives are so vulnerable to a virus, perhaps we should think about what to do differently? Why not tie state aid for companies to their contribution to implementing new smart solutions?

The current economic model is unsustainable either way and we can rather look forward to new challenges thrown up by a global ecological disaster in the near future. We need to get used to the idea that certain things we have taken for granted and held to be perpetual might disappear and there's nothing we can do about it – in addition to being ready for change and getting to work creating the new before the old has perished.

I believe that societies that are up to such a task will exit this crisis stronger. Estonia that has managed to be innovative in the past has a certain advantage here.

Therefore, let us not lose time, our ethical fortitude or common sense and let us instead try to imagine what we might need to survive and make it in the world of the future instead.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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