An earlier version of this article appeared elsewhere on the internet under the pseudonym P. Onocrotalus.
Climate change and coronavirus policies, particularly lockdown policies, have diametrically opposite approaches to valuing life in the present and the future, yet they are both enthusiastically endorsed by state bureaucracies around the world, not least in the United Kingdom. Have they something in common in spite of their apparent differences?
Vaccines to protect against Covid-19 did not excuse the Prime Minister from his perceived obligation to put the population under what was little better than house arrest when faced with variant of the virus, and while public reluctance combined with the mildness of the omicron variant seem to have prevented another national lockdown, at least for the time being, it now seems inevitable that the British government, acting as a Committee of Public Safety, will immediately resort to policies restricting movement and meeting in the case of future variants and other pandemics. Lockdowns are now an accepted tool of public health policy.
Many of us are struggling to understand how this extraordinarily oppressive state of affairs has come about, and so quickly, and with hardly any substantial resistance. Comparison with another risk management policy, climate change mitigation, sheds a disconcerting light on the matter. Superficially different in character, these two contrasted policies share a common answer to the ever-relevant question, Cui bono. But let us start with the differences.
Climate change policy applies little or no discount to the interests of the infinite future, and so as a consequence gives the interests of the present only the slightest weight in the balance. – Those currently alive are asked to make sacrifices, and in practice unlimited sacrifices, to save infinitely distant future generations.
Lockdown policy applies a zero discount to a small selection of present interests and thus attempts to prevent death, with only scant regard for the long-term societal damage incurred. – The interests of the future are heavily discounted and thus sacrificed to preserve a subsection of the present whose interests are ostensibly given overwhelming privilege.
Neither of these policies is consistent with the way that human beings in actual behavioural fact value their own lives and the lives of others in the present and in the future. This is puzzling since it is not particularly difficult to determine what human beings are maximising through their very varied behaviour.
Banal though it may seem, we have no evidence that humans are anything more than straightforward reproductive organisms that value their own lives insofar as they gather resources and secure their reproduction. They do not maximise their individual longevity or their individual hedonic experience, both of which are proxies and not ultimate ends. The only final goal that we can infer is ultimate reproduction, bearing in mind that this is achieved through the extended family as well as immediate offspring. This behavioural purpose is so far from transcendent that it will seem to many hardly worthy of the name, but observation has so far indicated no other human goal.
Of course, real world human behaviour is characterised by balanced self-sacrifice in the interests of offspring. However, climate and lockdown policies require unbalanced sacrifices of a kind that men and women do not offer spontaneously. The policies run against the psychological grain.
Consider the details. A coronavirus lockdown is intended to save human life. But the virus does not, apparently, threaten the young, only the very old who are post-reproductive and, in most cases, contributing little or perhaps nothing to the wellbeing of their nevertheless much-loved children and grandchildren.
The sacrifice is predominantly required of the young and the active who are still gathering resources to produce and rear families. But lockdowns do indeed harm the life’s work of the old by putting their continued personal existence before the interests of their offspring and extended families, a preference that the old themselves would never express or realise in action.
Thus, coronavirus lockdown policy frustrates the bedrock of altruism underlying the family, and also burdens the old, against their will, with a terrible responsibility.
Climate policy, however, tends in the opposite different direction. The interests of the infinite future are put before those of everyone or nearly everyone at present living. Great sacrifices must be made in the short run to reduce emissions and protect populations as yet unborn. This is, once again, a decision that actual men and women would never make spontaneously, for if the interests of the present are not sufficiently well served there can be no future generations. Climate preachers urge their congregations to “think of the kids” and not themselves, but the advice is both absurd and redundant. Parents care for their families but must first care for themselves. The pelican certainly tears its breast to feed its young, but it does not start by cutting its own throat.
The rhetoric of climate policy describes present generations as selfish hedonic maximisers that must be compelled to relegate their own experiential hunger in order to protect the interests of future generations. But, as we have seen, this is both false and needless; the living are already engaged in a balancing of interests to produce and secure the existence of future individuals, far into the future, and they need no pressure from climate policy to think in this selfless way. Indeed, extreme climate policy, and at present we have no other for Net Zero comes in one flavour, is harmful to the interests of future generations as well as those alive at the present time because it frustrates precisely those current interests that must be satisfied if there is to be any prospect of a future generation of human beings.
Both lockdown and climate policies, therefore, suffer from an ostensibly uncompromising and absolutist morality which demands that equal value is put on all human lives regardless of their position in the reproductive trajectory. As a matter of real-world fact, this runs counter to the interests of all parties involved, and, unsurprisingly, is not how men and women behave in practice. Parents must satisfy enough of their own requirements to reproduce and care for their families, but they will not absolutely sacrifice the interests of their descendants in order to preserve their own lives. The pelican, we have noted, will not cut its own throat, yet, mythically speaking, it most certainly does tear its own breast, curtailing its hedonic satisfactions and shortening its life in order to rear its young.
Nonetheless, and contrary to observation, lockdown policy must presume that mature human beings would wish to preserve their individual lives at the cost of sacrificing the future of their offspring, which in fact they do not and would never do.
Climate policy, on the other hand, claims that the living will not willingly sacrifice themselves for a future generation. However, as a matter of routine fact that is what people do, though in a necessarily pragmatic way that is incompatible with the extreme and self-harming action required by the currently predominant low-carbon policies.
Climate mitigation and lockdown policies are not only inconsistent with human wishes and actual behaviour, but they are clearly inconsistent with one another, lockdown policy insisting on the absolute value of some present lives, and climate policy insisting on the absolute value of all future lives. In addition, climate policy suffers from an internal flaw: it threatens future lives by leaving the present unable to raise a viable generation with a secure societal future.
These policies are obviously errors, but are they pure errors, random walks in possibility space that have strayed quite accidentally from the path of practicality? One has to allow that this might be true; delusions and mistakes do occur even in minds of the finest quality, and it is possible that both these faulty policies arise from a very widely distributed popular misconception or from an honest administrative error.
But a general delusion does not seem likely. Humans are extremely good at perceiving and acting on their own interest, and they rarely go down the wrong path for long. To err is certainly human; but so is learning from error. A population-wide mistake that endures for long periods has never been observed. Some peoples have been said to try every other available course before doing the right thing, but the joke has its laugh because they do eventually find their way back to the path. Populations may indeed be destroyed by the weight of circumstances, but not by their errors; they do the best they can in the most miserable and constrained of conditions. One thinks of the desperate jeopardy of the Melians.
Pure errors, then, are quickly corrected, but climate policy, at least, has been with us in its present form for some twenty years, and in spite of manifest failures and vast costs appears to be insusceptible to criticism, even when extremely well aimed. It is therefore unlikely to be a pure error. Some other force accounts for its survival. We cannot be certain if this is also true of lockdown policies, since these are not even two years old, but they are already showing signs of extreme resilience in the face of informed opposition and public resistance. Lockdown may not be a pure populational error either. Perhaps this very ill wind blows good to someone.
If these policies are not pseudoxia epidemica, perhaps they are administrative errors, arising from a deeply rooted governmental misconception? That is not unlikely; civil servants are people and people make mistakes; but unlike people outside the chalk circle of the state apparatus, civil servants are very slow to learn from their mistakes because they are insulated from the consequences of failure. But if this were the case for climate and lockdown policies one might expect them both to possess or to flow from similar logical structures, a departmental or cross-departmental “view” on societal emergencies for example. But as been shown above this does not appear to be true. Indeed, these policies approach discounting in diametrically opposed and contradictory ways, one privileging the present and the other privileging the future. They possess different foundations.
It would appear, then, that these policies are not based on pure errors. In which case they must be impure, and instead serve some more or less concealed interest. But whose interest? The ultimate beneficiaries are hardly likely to raise their hands when asked, and they may not even be aware of their involvement. As a little candid introspection will begin to dimly perceive, we all hold some of our vested self-interest in blind and frequently offshore trusts.
But the situation is not hopeless. We can confidently identify the way harm is distributed, and in doing so we will arrive at a common feature in the policies that points us in the direction of those who probably benefit.
Both lockdown and climate policies are to the disadvantage of people who are vigorous, active and present. In the case of lockdown policies, they directly harm anyone not old. Furthermore, they even harm the interests of the old indirectly by compromising the future wellbeing of their offspring and extended families. Climate policies harm anyone alive, with benefits being imagined for the abstract, absent, unborn.
In other words, both policies appear to harm the majority of the present population, while pretending to act on behalf of a weak and voiceless population, the very old and the as yet unborn.
Thus, at a gross level these policies appear to be almost universally harmful. But a moment’s reflection will show that the net effect is different. Both sets of policies frustrate the free wishes of a population that seeks to secure their own reproduction through balanced self-sacrifice, and the frustration of such firmly held wishes requires coercive regulation and enforcement, activities that can only be delivered with the sanction of state violence and through the offices of secure and securely remunerated positions within the state, the para-state, and the very many associated clients of both. The ultimate net beneficiaries of lockdown policies and climate policies are state employees and state contractors.
We can conclude, therefore, that policies with contradictory approaches to present and future can occur simultaneously in governmental policy because their ultimate end, the reason that they are preferred over other policies, is to provide plausible justification for coercive intrusion into the lives of the vigorous population. The policies efficiently disarm criticism by claiming to act on behalf of parties that are practically unable to disown and reject the “help” offered to them, the old because they are infirm, and the unborn because they are absent. Because these parties lie at opposite ends of the life-cycle, and consequently in the process of justification those responsible for state policy have been compelled to adopt two incompatible discounting models in their rhetoric. The dog being beaten is the same, but different sticks must be held in different ways.
But it is the hand wielding those sticks that interests us. The historical record provides ample evidence, quite apart from our own recent experience, to suggest that the administrative opportunities of large societies will create a clerisy with strong personal and prejudicial interests that are in deep and considerable conflict with the wishes of the population they claim to serve. This divergence is on occasion betrayed by the character of the altruism called for by policies, such as the public health measures addressing the coronavirus or the emissions reduction strategy employed to mitigate climate change.
This suggests a political litmus test. If any public interest policy is inconsistent with the balanced self-sacrifice of parents, then it is almost certainly exploiting the population in order to serve the administration and its clients. History suggests that this will not be a stable situation. All normative discounting models, such as those employed explicitly by Lord Stern in his notorious climate review, and implicitly in the lockdown policies employed over the last two years, should be firmly rejected as politically dangerous. Naturalistic models derived from the observed behaviour of the population are to be preferred on all occasions.
And better still, let us dispense with discounting models altogether except as academic descriptive and predictive tools. A free society can confidently rely on the spontaneous judgment of men and women to correctly value the future and the present, themselves and each other, as their intuitions direct them in the expression of familial love and friendship. The outcome will be qualified self-sacrifice and a prosperous society with as long a future as fate permits.