Covid-19, the Evil Genius, and How to Think about Societal Risks
When I was in law school, my Torts professor was Dean (now Judge) Guido Calabresi, affectionately known to everyone as Guido. Each year, Guido gave his class a hypothetical that ran something like this: Imagine an Evil Genius comes to you before the automobile is invented and offers you all the advantages of the automobile, in exchange for killing 50,000 people a year (the rate of deaths in car accidents at the time in the U.S.). If you turn down the offer, society will organize itself in a way that’s not automobile dependent, and, perhaps counter-intuitively, Guido asked us to assume that the 50K lives were not being made up by hypothetical lives saved by the existence of cars. Basically, the problem asks whether one would be willing to kill off 50K lives a year in exchange for the conveniences and pleasures of the automobile.
I objected to the hypo on the grounds that automobiles do in fact save as well as cost lives, but something else bothered me about the problem, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I thought about it again many years later.
I realized that what bothered me about the hypo was that it assumed that the right way to look at the problem was to assume that one is a central planner, and gets to decide for everyone whether to kill off 50K people. When you put it that way, it’s hard to
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