The Soylent Green solution

In keeping with the “it’s not a business theme,” Yglesias has a great post on a really good reason we should not consider business a good analogy for what we’re doing with our government.  If we did run government like a business, the first thing we should do is get rid of all the old people.  Yglesias:

A state is fundamentally an ethical enterprise aimed at promoting human welfare. A business isn’t like that. If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. It’s not “entitlements” and it’s not “Social Security” and it’s not “Medicare” and it’s not “health care costs” it’s the existence of old people. Old people, generally speaking, don’t produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street. The problem with this isn’t that it wouldn’t work, it’s that it would be wrong, morally speaking.

Now obviously an idea like raising the retirement age to 70 isn’t as wrong as mandatory euthanasia at the age of 70. But by the same token, it doesn’t “work” as well at boosting per capita GDP or cutting down on American red ink. And both ideas exist on a continuum of the same tradeoff—bolstering the living standards of old people is an economically inefficient undertaking that we sentimental human beings find ethically appealing. That’s not to say that the spot on the continuum occupied by current policy is the best possible way to make the tradeoff. But it’s simply to dramatize the nature of calculus we’re talking about. As a “business strategy” it’s ridiculous—on a par with preserving the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon or having the military pay health care costs of soldiers who are too injured to fight—but that’s because it’s not a business strategy.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to The Soylent Green solution

  1. John says:

    Instead of taking it to the extreme (euthanization of old people?) why not make the case on the clear differences between business and government? It’s probably the most unpopular statement to ever make in the U.S. but government is far more efficient than almost all private businesses at pretty much everything, even when profit is factored out of the equation.  How many businesses can say they serve 310 million customers like Social Security or 98 million customers like Medicare/Medicaid & SCHIP and have 2 to 7% administrative costs???

    And talk about innovation! Government probably wouldn’t be good at desiging and building an iPad but it’s really good at collaborating with a host of diverse organizations and individuals to create things like space travel, water filtration systems, the technology behind minitiaturized computers and the internet, just to name a few.  There has never been a company on earth that could make that claim with just this small list.  Now granted, government had to use the private sector and academia to make many of these things happen but I think it’s reasonable to argue that business would have never created these things on their own.  And this is due to the nature of business; how do you justify the expenditures for building a space shuttle when the profitable outcomes, however great, are not quantifiable?  You can’t, so they don’t.

    Realizing the strength of the people through government can lead us to use it most effectively to solve simple problems we already have the answers to, instead of being guided by stubborn ideology that tells us that government can’t and business won’t.

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