In our fight against COVID-19, we must respect the universal principles that allow for problem-solving in general. While these will never tell us exactly what we should be doing in any given problem-situation, such as the one in which we currently find ourselves, they provide the framework in which we are able to solve problems and make progress in the first place. So it can save us a lot of civilizational headaches if we invest time into the higher-level ideas that we’d better get straight as we wage war with the virus.
Wealth is not a fixed pie. It is not generally true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and in a free market, it’s next to impossible (I suppose everyone could still choose to undergo mass suicide, but I digress). It mustn’t be taken for granted that we in the West are orders of magnitude wealthier than our ancestors, and much of the rest of the world is similarly escaping from the Hobbesian poverty into which our species was born.
Wealth is essentially our ability to transform resources into solutions. For example, our societies currently have some number of hospital beds, masks, and countless other medical technologies. They did not fall from the sky, but instead were created through a decentralized, multi-step capitalist production process in which the raw materials of Mother Nature were transformed, by people, into these life-saving consumer goods. At any slice in time, this elegant process has delivered a finite number of each consumer good to the market. The free minds of civilization have created this solution, while Mother Nature has sent us the virus.
What is required for wealth to increase? Fundamentally, we need to acquire more knowledge. For example, the process that leads to the creation of medical supplies could be made more efficient by discovering new methods of production, which would lead to either more such goods being produced, or a decrease in their price, or both. Innovations are a special kind of knowledge in which someone conceives of a possible transformation that no one had yet considered. The creation of an anti-viral drug that could kill some particular strain is a salient example.
What, in turn, inhibits all of this creativity in an economy? Unwanted regulations raise the barrier to entry in any industry, effectively rendering innovation costlier and more infrequent than they otherwise would be. Price controls, too, result in wasteful shortages and unwanted surpluses. Even the infamous practice of ‘price gouging’ is simply a seller’s response to an increase in demand. In short, bureaucratic red tape and top-down controls are the opposite of what’s needed in time of crisis — they serve to tether mankind’s creativity, our only engine of wealth creation.
Epistemology (Theory of Knowledge)
I’ve said that the growth of wealth requires the growth of knowledge. Our best theory of knowledge is called critical rationalism, which was fleshed out in detail by the 20thcentury Viennese philosopher, Karl Popper. In short, our understanding of reality inevitably has problems, errors, and shortcomings. In particular, these could be conflicts between independent theories, or observed phenomena for which we lack an explanation, or a mismatch between acquired data and predictions from our theories. We guess a candidate solution to such a problem — this is typically a creative theory or hypothesis. Should we conjecture multiple possible solutions to a given problem, we then criticize all of them until only one survives. This structure of conjecture and criticism is how we acquire not just scientific knowledge, but all good explanations (I highly recommend David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity for a longer discussion).
Because all knowledge is guesswork, absolute certainty is impossible, and therefore so are all arguments from authority. Infallible truths cannot be found by holy book nor by credentialed scholar. Of course, books, specialists, and institutions may indeed harbor the knowledge we need to solve a given problem, but their ideas are as subject to criticism as those of laypeople. “Trust me, I’m an expert” and other justifications-by-authority are inadequate defenses. The merits of an idea are due to its content alone, not its source.
Another consequence of the conjectural nature of knowledge is that we have a moral obligation to be maximally creative and not judge novel ideas that strike us as weird, unworkable, or unrealistic. Such dismissal is, frankly, not a rebuttal. All virgin thoughts take acclimation, practically by definition. We cannot afford to arbitrarily hamper our creativity with anti-rational forces such as mockery, taboo, and sanctimony.
Finally, I want to emphasize that all data is theory-laden. It is impossible to make predictions based solely on data — one always requires an explanation (a theory) as to why such-and-such data pattern causes one to predict some particular trajectory into the future. The common and proud expression, “I just follow the data”, is nonsense. It is impossible to just follow the data. Any extrapolation of current COVID-19 data surrounding death rates, spreading patterns, or anything else requires an explanation and should be able to withstand substantive criticism, as we demand for all theories.
Our deepest theory in physics is constructor theory, whose fundamental principle is that all of the laws of physics can be expressed in terms of transformations that are possible, transformations that are impossible, and why (I won’t delve into greater details, but the curious reader may learn more here,here, and here).
But, following the core tenet of constructor theory, if a transformation is not forbidden by some law of nature, then it is possible. And if something is possible, then it is achievable by people, once they acquire the knowledge of how to do so. Deutsch calls this the momentous dichotomy, and it is why people are a fundamental aspect of reality — they are the only entities in the cosmos that are capable of rendering any possible transformation and solving any problem they face. The limiting factor of both is how much knowledge is in our arsenal at any moment.
Philosophical optimism also follows from a constructor theoretic worldview. If some transformation is not achievable no matter how much knowledge we bring to bear, then that is itself another law of nature. Therefore, if we face a problem whose solvability is not explicitly forbidden by physics, then we are capable of solving it. I know of no law forbidding our vanquishing of COVID-19; the knowledge of how to do so is therefore discoverable, and our foe extinguishable.
The principles of economics tell us how wealth is created, and what impedes our ability to create more of it. In particular, they reveal under what conditions more goods such as hospital devices may be produced, and how their prices can fall. The laws of epistemology tell us how to further acquire knowledge — we must conjecture as many good ideas about how to defeat the virus as possible, criticize all of them, and take the survivors seriously. And our deepest laws of physics provide a rational case for optimism — any problem-situation, no matter how dire, is solvable by people as long as the laws of nature do not forbid its solution from being discovered and rendered.
The particulars of the Enemy will differ from age to age — today, it happens to be a virus. The power of principles is that they don’t care what’s happening in our latest affairs. They are the great arbiters of existence, and a mature people does not deny them in times of stress. On the contrary, only by accepting Mother Nature’s constraints is progress possible in the first place.