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The Worship of Zero 

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The optimal amount of any “bad” (e.g., crime, cancer) is very, very seldom zero. This is because the marginal cost of reducing a harm increases (typically at an increasing, and often rapidly increasing, rate): eventually the cost of reducing the harm further exceeds the benefit, usually well before the harm is eliminated. 

Unfortunately, a good fraction of the world is in the thrall of those with Zero obsessions who ignore this fundamental reality. Covid and climate are the two most telling examples. 

Countries pursuing “Zero-Covid” strategies have subjected their citizens to draconian measures that have deprived them of the blessings of normal human interaction, and freedom of thought and movement. 

Children especially have been brutalized, losing two years of schooling, socialization, and even the ability to speak and understand and interpret the non-verbal due to absurd masking requirements. 

This brutality has unsurprisingly reached its zenith (or nadir, if you prefer) in China, a nation of 1.4 billion governed by a despotic regime that has gone all in on Zero-Covid. The outbreak of Covid in Shanghai after years of restrictions proves the futility of the objective. The CCP’s response to the proof of the futility shows its insanity. 

In response to the outbreak, the regime has locked down a city of over 26 million people. And this ain’t your Aussie or Kiwi or American or Brit or Continental lockdown, boys and girls: this is a hardcore lockdown. Mandatory daily testing, with those testing positive sent right to hospital, symptomatic or not–despite the fact that this has overwhelmed the medical system and is depriving truly sick people of vital care. Children separated from parents. People locked in their abodes, often without adequate food. Pets slain. 

It is draconian–and dystopian. 

The other prominent example is “Net Zero” carbon emissions. This has become the idol which all the right thinking bow down before, especially in the West. Governments, financial institutions, and other businesses (especially in the energy industry) are judged based on a single criteria: do their actions contribute to achieving “net zero” emissions of greenhouse gases? And woe to those who do not pass this judgment.

It is absurd. And it is absurd because the monomaniacal focus on a single measure immediately banishes all considerations of trade-offs, of costs and benefits. The implicit belief is that the cost of carbon is infinite, and hence it is worth incurring any finite cost–no matter how huge–to achieve it. 

And the costs are immense, have no doubt. In particular, the environmental costs–the production of battery metals involves massive environmental costs, for example–are huge. Yet they are ignored by people who preen over how green they are. Because to them, Only One Thing Matters. 

This is beyond stupid. Those who will impose any cost, and force others to bear any burden, in order to achieve some Zero reveal that that number is a good approximation of their IQ. 

Upon reflection, I believe that the worship of Zero is a mutation of the worship of central planning which dominated the pre-WWII era, and which was supposedly discredited by experience (e.g., the USSR) and intellectual argument (e.g., Hayek, von Mises).

Central planning involved the determination by an elite of an objective to be achieved by a society, and the use of coercion–at whatever level necessary–to achieve that objective. Actually, compared to the Rule of the Zeroes, central planning was quite nuanced: it usually did involve some acknowledgement of trade-offs, whereas the Rule of the Zeros does not, with everything–literally everything–being subordinated to the One Zero. 

But ultimately, central planning foundered on the reef of its internal contradictions. Attempting to impose a singular objective on a complex, emergent system consisting of myriad individuals pursuing their own idiosyncratic goals was doomed to failure. And it did. But only after inflicting tremendous costs in terms of human lives and human freedom, not to mention human prosperity. 

The fundamental inconsistency between emergent and imposed orders meant that central planning required the application of massive coercion. The same is true in the Rule of Zeroes. This has been particularly evident in the case of Covid: what is going on in Shanghai proves this beyond cavil. But the same is inevitable for Net Zero. 

To impose a centrally dictated objective, and a unidimensional one to boot, on complex societies comprised of billions of individuals with extremely diverse preferences and capabilities is to wage war on human nature, and humanity. Sustaining it necessarily requires the application of massive, and massively increasing, coercion. It requires people to “choose” what they would not choose of their own volition. 

The populism so scorned by the elite is a natural reaction to this fundamental inconsistency. Whether Le Pen prevails in France or not, the mere fact that it is a possibility reveals the seething discontent of large numbers of folks at the presumptions of their betters. And this is just the latest example of the disconnect between the Zeroes who presume rule, and those whom they presume to rule. 

It is a disconnect born of a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic social reality that life involves trade-offs, and that different people value trade-offs differently. That supposedly Smart People have Zero understanding of this reality is a shocking commentary on our “progressive” age.

Author

  • Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.


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