– April 5, 2020

Abundant historical evidence informs us that poverty both sickens and kills over the long term, that it brings higher rates of morbidity and mortality, not only in less-wealthy, “less-developed” nations but also among poorer folks in wealthier nations. Put positively, wealth promotes health; it thereby increases lifespans and happiness; and it does so in fact as well as logic. It makes sense.  To the extent capitalism fosters the creation of wealth – a truth denied today only by the hopelessly biased – it also fosters the creation of health.

Less well known than the longer-term benefits of wealth to health are the shorter-term benefits. Emergencies especially reveal this aspect of the relationship. We know “the survival rules of three,” that most people can’t live beyond three weeks without food, beyond three days without water, or beyond three minutes without oxygen. 

That’s the bare maximum. Consider also what happens when disease arrives; the more primitive is the setting (or economy) you live in, the sooner you’ll take ill or perish. Up from there, the most vulnerable people in a modern-day medical crisis need not “merely” food, water, and oxygen but crucially, also, experts, medics, masks, ventilators, and medicines.

Evidence also abounds that people of all ages, races, and socio-economic positions can suffer sharp dips or deep declines in health (both physical and mental) during economic recessions and depressions. 

Even in rich countries, over the short-term, millions of people can lose, to varying degrees, their job, income, home, pension, and financial-retirement security, plus their confidence, vacation, family, friends, sobriety, humanity – even their sanity.  Suicide rates also rise. The short-term carnage can extend into the longer-term.

Authoritarians for Health, But Not Wealth?

Unwealthy is unhealthy, so policies inflicted on innocent citizens during a time deemed “equivalent to war,” which supposedly promote health but also prohibit work, and thus risk economic recession or depression, are, in fact, policies equivalent to war crimes.

Where but from robust economies “firing on all cylinders” can crucial medical products and services come – and keep coming? From the FDA? The CDC? HHS? The WHO?  Don’t kid yourself. The crucial medical things come from vibrant, inventive, profit-making economies – or they don’t come at all (as many people are just now discovering). And who makes, uses, and replenishes these crucial medical things?  

Not faceless, inanimate “factors of production” (per economists’ jargon), but real, live, self-interested, ingenious, productive people: scientists, researchers, lab technicians, doctors, nurses, medical specialists, EMT crews, hospitals, health insurers, and pharmaceutical companies.

Notice, they’re all on the “supply side,” and now in acute demand. Yet only a few months ago we all heard of pompous politicians and policy wonks of every political persuasion purporting to make health care a “right” by boosting demand relative to supply, whether by more public subsidies for demanders or more quotas and price controls on suppliers.

Around the globe today, with but few exceptions, political leaders, public health officials, and economists (most who should know better) are committing the grave error of forcibly shuttering businesses and large parts of economies. The new authoritarians, dressed not in military garb but lab coats, suits, and ties, assume a false dichotomy – worse, a latent clash – between health and wealth. They presume that the pursuit of health is morally superior to the pursuit of wealth; the first is noble, they imply, the latter crass. They feel justified in sacrificing wealth to health, in harming real lives by harming livelihoods.

This must stop, even as the fight against the Coronavirus continues, if we’re to return fully to living healthier and wealthier lives. Indeed, the virus fight can become fiercer and more effective when we’re all workingtogether. It’s economically false (and morally obscene) to declare some people, some jobs, some firms, or some sectors “essential” while claiming others are “non-essential.” 

If we’re truly humane, if we care about individuals instead of faceless job classifications, we must care deeply about individuals’ livelihoods. We must appreciate what everyone else is doing for a living. Rational people don’t live to work; they work to live. Why prohibit that?  To do so is inhumane, for it only ensures that more people suffer, if not die. Each job is essential to the jobholder and each firm to its owner.

Standard claims about the supposed net benefits of mandatory lockdowns, shutdowns, and shut-ins are dubious on both economic and moral grounds; as such, they’re woefully improper, even dangerous, when used to justify destructive public policymaking.

Let Freedom Reign

Economically, we can rightly expect the many disparate but coordinated elements of a free economy to move about and figure out how best to handle emergencies, with actors driven by self-interest, that is, by a concern for their own safety and self-preservation, plus concern for the many significant others they know and love. 

In any temporary crisis most people are willing also to be charitable toward needful strangers, but only if allowed to do so, to be out and about, assembling, co-mingling, and working at it.  Diversity, variety and experimentation in free economies rapidly teach us what’s working and what’s not. Public officials can impede this, harming wealth and health, by “one-size-fits-all” policies.   

We all hear the word “economy” in the singular, as a thing, or entity, perhaps some lump, to be shaped, molded, prodded – if necessary, occasionally “stimulated.” But an economy isn’t an entity, or some lamp, appliance, or machine to be switched off and on, guided by the whim of some operator (or group of them), distant, uninformed, and unmotivated. 

An economy is an intricate, delicate system, a stupendous, comprehensive latticework of interconnected contracts, of plans and sub-plans, markets and sub-markets, calibrations and expectations, retail chains and supply chains, prices and profits – a mosaic of real lives and livelihoods. Aside from the heartless who seem to welcome chaos and pathos, others should recognize that no economy survives or flourishes if micromanaged by a few, least of all by the non-commercial types we observe today, issuing all their mandates.

As explained in my prior essay (“Incarceration, Monetization, and Nationalization Can’t Preserve Our Health or Wealth”), to declare a nation to be at “at war” in peacetime, against a virus, not mainly to kill it but rather to invoke authoritarian powers (as under the Defense Production Act of 1950), is “to declare war against [one’s own] citizens.” It’s no way to promote wealth-creation, so it’s also no way to promote health-creation.

The Moral is Practical, If It’s Egoistic

If claims about the supposed net benefits of an authoritarian, bifurcated approach are false on economic grounds – as they are – they’re no less false on moral grounds. Yet the moral error – which holds that health seeking is morally superior while wealth seeking is morally inferiorfeeds the economic error. Health and wealth each are important human values; they aren’t in conflict; they don’t clash; they rise and fall together because they’re mutually supportive and mutually reinforcing.  Public officials who claim they’re promoting health by depressing wealth are, in fact, depressing both.

Why is health viewed as morally superior while wealth is morally inferior? The latter, we know, faces the long-standing medieval-scriptural bias that “love of money is the root of all evil,” or “it shall be easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of the needle than to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  We also know the profit motive, being the commercial manifestation of self-interest, is despised (at worst) or distrusted (at best), just as self-interest is assumed to be immoral (at worst) or amoral (at best). By this code, wealth-seeking is morally inferior. It shouldn’t be necessary to say, but a medieval moral code against self can’t serve or fuel a modern medical system, unless the aim is to destroy it.

We’re also told that health itself is morally superior to wealth, because people who lack wealth suffer more, and suffering is more important than flourishing; the alleviation of pain is more important than the promotion of pleasure; the amelioration of sorrow is more important than the cultivation of joy. The dichotomous breach widens still further when it’s assumed that the two values are mutually exclusive, when some people are sick while others aren’t, when some suffer while others don’t.

The disparity seems unfair, unjust, inhumane. It’s believed that the best thing to do, morally, if the sick can’t be made better, and soon, is to make the better sick or sicker, at least less wealthy, by working less. Have all share in the problem; make all suffer together, equally, altruistically, “morally.”

Is this “moral,” really? No.  That’s exactly why the approach hasn’t been working – along with millions of innocent people who also aren’t working, despite wanting and needing to. 

Unlike those in business who buy, sell, and profit while being derided as greedy chiselers, those in medicine who care, treat, and heal are viewed as selfless saints. To the extent money and medicine mix, medicine is distrusted; money is presumed to infect medicine, not the reverse. The non-profit hospital is judged morally superior to the for-profit one, just as the VA hospital is judged morally superior to a place like Duke Medical Center. Yet health care is clearly inferior at places deemed morally “superior.” Is that humane?

Always Open for Business

It’s largely self-interested, self-motivated individuals, experts, groups, and firms in the private sector – above all in the medical sector – who will fix and end the current crisis. They’re doing it now, as they’ve fixed such problems in the past, and they’ll do it so again in the future, if left free and sufficiently (selfishly) motivated.  That requires a fully capitalist medical system, surrounded, supported and sustained by an equally capitalist economy that’s always open for business.  Politicians, meanwhile, should mind their own business, which shouldn’t include subsidizing, regulating, or nationalizing health care.  

To be clear, mine is not an argument for a heartless, utilitarian calculus, or a defense of some public bureaucrat’s cost-benefit analysis of how best to maximize “social utility.” That’s collectivism, which underlies statism; it’s not individualism, a pillar of capitalism. We know, both historically and logically, that collectivism is hateful to some and fatal to many. Triage and rationing are unique to wars and statism, not to peace and capitalism. 

We needn’t (on practical grounds) and shouldn’t (on moral ground) sacrifice anyone to anyone else, nor to another thing, nor sacrifice purportedly “non-essential” to essential labor, nor wealth to health.  Yes, to be rational we all must weigh both costs and benefits, as best we can, and in all realms of life; but this must be done calmly and voluntarily, by individuals and life-sustaining groups of them (families, firms), for their mutual benefit – not by remote, inexpert, and indifferent but panicky autocrats (the usual type).

We see – with a policy of lockdowns, shutdowns, and shut-ins – that “unwealthy is unhealthy.” 

Why then all the official mandates?  Some officials seem to glimpse that the muscular method doesn’t work and isn’t practical, but they adopt it anyway and are reluctant to relent because they feel it’s moral. People are often driven more by ethics than by economics or politics; it’s alright, even normal, but we’d all be much better off if rational egoism was seen as an alternative, legitimate code of ethics – even a superior one, given that it’s consistent with the pursuit and achievement of health and wealth.

Richard M. Salsman

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AIER Senior Fellow Richard M. Salsman is president of InterMarket Forecasting, Inc. and a visiting assistant professor of political economy at Duke University. Previously he was an economist at Wainwright Economics, Inc. and a banker at the Bank of New York and Citibank. Dr. Salsman has authored the books Gold and Liberty (1995), The Collapse of Deposit Insurance and the Case for Abolition (1993) and Breaking the Banks: Central Banking Problems and Free Banking Solutions (1990), all published by AIER, and, most recently, The Political Economy of Public Debt: Three Centuries of Theory and Evidence (2017). Dr. Salsman earned a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College (1981), an M.A. in economics from New York University (1988), and a PhD in political economy from Duke University (2012).

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