Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

How the Precautionary Principle Can Be Used to Justify Any Government Action, no Matter How Cra-Cra


Yesterday in response to one of my more outrageous “dad jokes,” my son said that I was “cra-cra” (pronounced Cray Cray).  I hastened to the internet to look the term up.  It means “Crazy.”

The term put me in mind of a recent exchange I had with frequent commenter MatSpirit.  We were discussing President Trump’s reaction to New York Governor Cuomo’s call for more ventilators.  For those who did not follow the story, on March 27 Cuomo said New York needed 40,000 ventilators.  The state had 12,000 already, so Cuomo was calling for an additional 28,000.  On that same day Trump said that he believed the request was inflated, that New York did not need that many ventilators.

Fast forward three weeks.  New York appears to have gotten past the worst of the crisis.  Hospitalizations are down.  And here’s the kicker:  The state did not use all of the ventilators it already had.  It turns out that instead of 28,000 additional ventilators, it needed exactly zero additional ventilators.

So I asked MatSprit, who was right Trump or Cuomo? 

MatSpirit replied, Cuomo of course.  He justified his answer as follows:  “In the peak of the covid crisis, with thousands dying and things getting worse every day, Coumo planned for the worst case.”

MatSpirit’s justification of his answer is a classic invocation of the “precautionary principle,” a principle much beloved by progressives, because it allows them to push for ever more government control, intervention, and expenditures without having to bother about silly questions such as “are government control, intervention and expenditures actually necessary?”  The principle is often invoked by progressives in the climate debate, for example, to push for draconian government intervention in the economy “out of an abundance of caution.” 

Let’s examine how MatSpirit’s invocation of this principle worked in this case.  Here are the facts:

1.  Cuomo called for additional 28,000 ventilators on March 27

2.  The cost per ventilator is $40,000, so the total cost of  his request was $1.12 billion.

3.  Trump said on the same day NY did not need 28,000 more ventilators.

4.  NY is past peak hospitalizations, and it turns out NY did not use all of the ventilators they had in stock.  So it is clear they did not need 28,000 more.

For those who want a blow-by-blow of the details, here is a good summary

Yet MatSprit insists the Cuomo was still correct to call for the billion dollar expenditure on ventilators that were not needed.  “Huh?” you might ask, “how can he justify that?”  Simple, like all good progressives, he invokes the precautionary principle.

It’s brilliant really, because it can be used to justify absolutely any call for government action —  no matter how cra-cra.  Here’s how the logic works:

Cuomo demanded 28,000 ventilators he did not need.  He was right to do so.  Indeed, he was morally obligated to do so, because he was “planning for the worst case.”  Notice how flexible this principle is.  No matter how hysterically overstated Cuomo’s demand, he would have still been right – indeed morally obligated – to make it.  28,000 he did not need?  He was right. 50,000 he did not need.  Still right, because he was planning for worst case.  100,000? Still right. You get the picture.

How can progressives just completely ignore a cost/benefit analysis when they make outrageous demands like this?  Simple, most progressives in government have only the vaguest conception of where the money they spend comes from.  You may think I am exaggerating, but I am not.  I have been in a legislature and have watched the process unfold in budget hearings.  As boondoggle expenditure after boondoggle expenditure is approved, the people spending the money take no notice that every dime they spend is extracted from taxpayers under the implicant threat of force.  Instead, they act like the money fell like pennies from heaven and is just lying around waiting for them to dream up ways to spend it.  The main problem with government budgeting has always been that is not subject to market discipline.  There is never any penalty for wasteful expenditures. 

Back to Cuomo.  In a fit of hysteria he called for an unnecessary billion-dollar expenditure.  Thankfully, his request was denied by the adults in the room.  But progressives like MatSprit still thank he was right to call for the boondoggle.  You can’t make this stuff up.

*Edit.* Truthfreedom
It seems BobRyan is infected with Moronavirus... Sebestyen
The United States Constitution does not allow for violations based on justification of any kind. The Supremacy Clause means that no state can do anything the Constitution forbids. The Commerce Clause places interstate commerce under the control of Congress and no state can put an undue burden on interstate commerce for any reason. Being able to justify actions, does not make them constitutional. The CDC no longer requires verification of COVID-19 to be able to add the numbers to their totals. The numbers of death aren't enough justification, which means they must inflate the numbers. It would not matter if this were less lethal than influenza, which is what COVID-19 is, or the return of the Spanish flu. There is no legal authority for any state to stop interstate commerce without an act of Congress. Social distancing and quarantine are not scientifically valid. Herd immunity is a real thing and it shortens the lifespan of viruses. By taking the actions that have been taken, it has served to prolong COVID-19. It also interferes with 1st Amendment protections of peaceful demonstration and free exercise of religion. BobRyan
Well, even a broken clock is correct twice a day... Sebestyen
Probably Cumo was relying on projections by scientists. Based on the advice he was getting he was probably right to ask for the extra ventilators. But it would not have been possible to supply ventilators at that level to every city in the United States so Trump was also right to refuse. Hindsight is always much more accurate than foresight. The real problem is how well the scientists making the predictions performed. Models were calibrated based on assumptions of which some at least were derived from reports of initial infections out of China. If those were inaccurate then the predictions will also be inaccurate. (Plus inaccuracies in other assumptions in the model.) Hopefully after this is over we will be able to learn from it and do better next time. aarceng
Good job, you've made the case Pres Trump was right in that case and Cumo was wrong. But If Cumo was cra-cra for wanting more ventilators than needed what is Trump for this: "When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that's a pretty good job we've done." or ""Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away." Cumo made a mistake. He overestimated the need. Trumo's gross underestimation is fine?? Trump is the cra-cra one here. David P

Leave a Reply