The historian and economist Deirdre McCloskey often laments the power that pessimism and despair seems to have over us. In her review of Thomas Piketty’s doorstop-sized book on capitalism and inequality—oh, in that long-forgotten blissful past when our media and politics were dominated not by viruses and misinformation and the racist-sexist industrial complex—she noted that “pessimism sells.” More recently, in her 2019 book Why Liberalism Works, she writes even more forcefully that “whatever new pessimism our friends on the left or the right will come up with next,” they will “write urgent editorials and terrifying books until the next ‘challenge’ justifying more government coercion gets their attention. For Lord’s sake, they say, we should do something! Do it with the government, they say, the only ‘we’ in sight.”
Across so many fields, from money to nutrition, I’ve found that the corollary to that government-heavy approach is a desire not to make choices for oneself. We want a board of white-hat experts to look after us, not trusting ourselves with money, morals, information, diseases, sexual dimorphism, or even how many sexes there are in Homo sapiens.
It’s better if someone else tells me how to think and act. I don’t want to look after my own health, either in practice or in theory, much preferring to have some CDC head or state administrator to tell me what I may or may not put into my body; what I should or shouldn’t eat; what medicine and experimental treatments I should or shouldn’t take.
Even facing a manmade pandemic, we don’t seem to want much responsibility for our own well-being, but rather outsource the quick fix to some of the people involved in its creation. Take the opportunity to go outside and exercise? To eat good food? To get in shape? No, no, have the same authoritarian culprits you should routinely ignore invent a magic fix for you, so that you can comfortably relax and refuse to take much responsibility of your own. Any of the other treatments or precautionary measures available? No, thanks.
Two recent memes—that comical language of our online worlds—that I encountered hit at the essence of this confusion.
The first featured a severely obese man with icons that displayed his daily behavior: cigarettes, soda, fast foods, alcohol, and a refusal to use the treadmill. Do as you please with your body, sir, but until yesterday nobody was surprised at the knowledge that these behaviors weren’t exactly conducive to a healthy living or a long-lasting life (though in our Orwellian world saying so is considered “fat shaming” and is unkind to our “large-bodied” friends).
The caption read: “Get the vaccine, bigot, you’re endangering my health.” No, sir, I think you’re doing a pretty good job of that yourself. The comedic effect is to absurdly insist on others getting a medical treatment—that doesn’t do what the person presumes it does (prevent spread)—while, proof-of-work style, refusing to care even the slightest about one’s own health.
The converse meme, arriving not long after, showed a line outside an overcrowded McDonald’s, with an ironic quotation attached: “Vaccines cause blood clot.”
Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t, but the connection between blood clots and obesity and hypertension is larger and the latter are well-known risk-factors for that condition. Again, until yesterday it would not have come as a surprise to anyone that fast foods are not the paragon of health. And if your reason for vaccine hesitancy (for a range of perfectly valid reasons) is the risk of blood clots, can you seriously say that while waiting for your McEverything?
And here’s the key: both memes are right—for the same reason I’m advancing here: a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own health, a capitulation before having others tell you what to do and an inane desire to tell others how to live their lives. The desire to dominate is strong in the twenty-first century. We don’t want the responsibility that an honest and modern life requires—but we still like to put aggressive judgment on other’s behavior. We want others to decide for us, in some sort of low-key intellectual masochism.
How to Make Sense of This?
Vaclav Smil, the prolific Canadian energy theorist, gives us a hint in the risk chapter of his upcoming How the World Really Works by citing Chancey Starr’s classic essay on voluntary versus involuntary risk, “Social Benefit versus Technological Risk.” Risk hunters, like downhill skiers or base jump enthusiasts take risks to their health many multiples of the difference between any conceivable diets, medical treatment, driving, the terrorism fears that routinely dominate our worst imaginations, or the stray lightning strikes that feature prominently in people’s minds.
For voluntary decisions, those which individuals choose on their own, the valuation of how much risk to carry is made by the individual himself and the consequences (usually) carried by that same individual. Even if the decision is made on vastly inaccurate knowledge about relevant risks, we have no way of estimating the individually derived benefit (though the action axiom itself helps).
Almost nobody is aware of how much more dangerous extreme sport is over the baseline of living, but Smil points out that almost everybody behaves as if they did. People dying in “America’s tornado-swept states” implicitly understand that the probability of dying from those events is so small that “continued living in such regions remains acceptable.” With our actions, we stoically carry the risk we want.
The point is that no matter how wrong an extreme individual case, it is unlikely that some organized collective governing body can do better, or even if they can assess it, have the individual comply appropriately with said edicts. Because “the decision-making is separated from the affected individual, society has generally clothed many of its controlling groups in an almost impenetrable mantle of authority and imputed wisdom,” writes Starr in the 1969 article.
The same kind of people who think the unenlightened bigot incapable of making choices for himself think that aggregating such people’s opinions through a ballot box produces leaders capable of making better choices for said bigot.
The level of voluntarily carried risk is thus incomparable to the risks people in power demand of you: your voluntarily carried risk can be orders of magnitude bigger (Starr suggests a thousand times) and still not constitute a right to violate and overwrite your choice.
To invoke an even more politically infected discussion, take climate change. We are routinely encouraged not to fly or eat meat (often for quite poorly evidenced reasons), when there are much bigger environmental fish to fry. But the big conversations in media, academia, and politics are not the low-hanging fruits of food waste and proper insulation in cold climates, not the carbon taxes that would—if you want to do something—be the least damaging. It’s the wide-scope, pie-in-the-sky authoritarianism of government spending on infrastructure, of Green New Deals, of building electricity systems (wind and solar) that don’t work, of carbon-capture initiatives that, even on the best of assumptions, do nothing.
We’ve tried thirty years of hotshots jetlining to luxurious locations from which “leaders” berate the fossil fuel–using inhabitants of the world—with very little to show for it. How about we try something else for the next thirty years, like individual responsibility and markets (i.e., you and me and Ralph’s pretty good grocery)?
If climate disasters are as bad as they say, (re)insurance companies will price premiums accordingly (or fairly quickly go bust). If fuel and raw material are as scarce as they say, producers will price them accordingly. If houses along the coasts are subject to (higher) flooding risks, the home buyers will price them accordingly—or distribute the houses in those locations to people least concerned with that risk.
“We are loath to let others do unto us what we happily do to ourselves,” concludes Starr. There is an amount of risk that people will take, and want to take, and it’s overwhelmingly out of the hands of political bureaucrats and academic hotshots to make that call.
We’ve tried large-scale centralized and political solutions for a few decades (centuries?) now. How about we try individual responsibility next? Maybe—just maybe—the political process does more harm than good; and maybe—just maybe—left to their own devices, people and communities do figure out how to solve the problems they care about.