The present pandemic crisis, ethics and the Great Depression

The coronavirus economic crisis is raising multiple ethical issues.

Politicians are facing the type of moral dilemmas raised by philosophers: do we have the right to take measures that will lead to the death of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, to save the jobs and the way of life of billions?

The easing of social distancing measures suggested by some politicians and economists to fight the economic crisis brought by the coronavirus outbreak calls to mind what Andrew Mellon – the then Secretary of Treasure – has said to President Hoover, ninety-one years ago, at the time of the Great Depression:

Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate. Purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. (…) Enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.

Mellon’s proposals became famous, and they evoke a parallel set of possible contemporary measures that could be taken to solve the coronavirus crisis:

Let the virus hit, let it kill millions of people. It will kill mostly sick and old. In the end, it will improve the financial budget of the healthcare systems. Let the economy rebound again, instead of letting it fall into an unknow and unprecedent crisis. Let’s preserve the way of life and the jobs of hundreds of millions if not billions of people.

As we now know, Andrew Mellon was outright wrong. His liquidationist proposals were nonsense.

Let’s hope that the economic crisis caused by the present pandemic doesn’t revive the liquidationist proposals of Andrew Mellon.

President Bolsonaro of Brazil seems to be the only major politician still embracing Mellon’s strategy publicly. But with the worsening of the economic crisis, others may enter or reenter the stage soon.

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