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How the coronavirus may force us into an existential crisis

The coronavirus could become a catalyst for a systemic transformation of the multipolar order, like the collapse of the Berlin Wall was to the bipolar order. It has further highlighted the limitations of binary systems based on any one-size-fits-all models. Neoliberalism teaches that humans are rational fools motivated by self-interest, but the dual-threat of coronavirus and climate change illustrates the need for a new paradigm, one in which individuals are encouraged to achieve balance between love of self and love for society.

April 21, 2020 - Epidamn Zeqo - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Sergio Boscaino (CC) www.flickr.com

“An ant is a wise creature for itself, but it is a shrewd thing in an orchard or garden. And certainly, men that are great lovers of themselves waste the public.”

Francis Bacon, Essay XXXIII – Of Wisdom For a Man’s Self

The term “rational fools”, coined by Amartya K. Sen, criticises rational choice theory as the behavioural foundation of economics. This paradoxical model defines and promotes society as simply an aggregate of goal-oriented egoists who act consistently across time and situations.  It is unrealistic, as it presumes all individuals to be social morons devoid of social embarrassment (like billionaires asking for donations or panic-buyers of products such as toilet paper). Despite abundant critique highlighted below, this “conceptual trap” spread from game theory to life.

Admittedly, the prisoner’s dilemma explains international relations well and why there is no global plan against the coronavirus or even climate change. This G0 world is in a current Hobbesian state of natureor chaos. There is also no unified plan at federal levels against these existential crises neither in the European Union nor the United States. Every state is fending for itself. Our world today reflects a paranoid view of man, that rational choice helped shape – promoting betrayal over trust paralysing the collective’s power to act. Rational fools perpetuate; rational fools right, left and centre!

It is tragically ironic that billions of us are locked-in our homes, as caging wildlife ultimately caused COVID-19, temporarily decreasing the (in)human(e) footprint on earth. We witness extreme manifestations of human behaviours, from doctors and nurses tirelessly fighting on the front line with hardly any resources to protect themselves, to those purposefully infecting others at coronavirus parties. It compels us to consider: are humans selfish (utility-maximising robots) or altruistic (saints) by nature? Could we choose to alter our instinct to be deeply self-centred (what David F. Wallace calls the “hard-wired default setting”)?

Aristotle wrote that individuals are moral “political animals”. Even according to utilitarians like John Stuart Mill, it is still “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied, because there are higher and lower forms of pleasures.” But I prefer Michel de Montaigne’s take because he presents a neutral view of humans as: “half-wise, half-blockhead creatures”.

Sen is right to state in his critique that both egoism and altruism are two extreme concepts. Like Adam Smith before him, Sen points to sympathy and commitment as better defining individual choice. In neither the Theory of Moral Sentiments nor Wealth of Nations, Smith ever claimed that individuals are always selfish nor that self-interest always leads to optimal outcomes. Niccolò Machiavelli’s work has similarly been interpreted with this restricted lens: since The Prince, he has become synonymous with self-interest, but in Discourses he proposes installing the virtues of active citizenship to encourage collective interest over personal interest.

Rational choice has been challenged by economists who have used an interdisciplinary approach to enrich theories of choice giving a more accurate view of human decision-making. Most recently, Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize for showing that assuming human beings are predictably irrational is the most rational approach to studying their behavior. As he put it, “economic agents are humans and economic models have to incorporate that.” Thaler is the latest behavioural economics to be recognised, following George Akerlof, Robert Fogel, Daniel Kahneman, Elinor Ostrom, and Robert J.Shiller.

As Sigmund Freud’s model of the psyche reveals, there are three (not one) drivers of behaviour: the id (the instinctual part of the mind), the super-ego (moral conscience), and the ego (the realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego).  But neoliberalism rewards an individual’s selfish instincts or id. So the one-dimensional view of humans as rational fools, although it’s no longer the behavioural foundation of economics, it stubbornly persists in real life as it has become a blind certainty inside many of us, but most deeply within individuals in liberal democracies.

John M. Keynes too, understood that emotions played a determinant role in influencing decision-making; that is the meaning of “animal spirits”, and he used this knowledge to advise moderately high levels of government intervention in the economy. Contrastingly, Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew and the “father of public relations”, used the same knowledge to promote profit over health; capitalism over democracy.


Underpinning neoliberalism is the model of the satisfied rational fool consumer not that of the dissatisfied idealistic citizen. The system is based on a type of liberty Isaiah Berlin called negative freedom – where individuals are free to do what they want as long as their actions do not interfere with others’ liberty (think of the US and the UK since Reagan and Thatcher, and Eastern Europe since 1989). John Nash and Berlin’s theories were proclaimed by promoters of neoliberalism, to be the scientific proof that it is indeed possible to have a society based on selfish individuals without leading to chaos or the state of nature.

The other concept of freedom is positive liberty in which a new man is created, usually coerced to become a better being for the greater good of society (think of the French Revolution, nationalism, fascism and socialism). This type of liberty, warned Berlin, always leads to tyranny like in the Soviet Union. Berlin favoured negative liberty but with a caveat. He prophetically warned promoters of negative freedom that they must never come to believe it as the absolute truth because such a belief also leads to tyranny.

It is clear now, especially after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that both concepts of liberty lead to tyranny. Neoliberalism tends to be a self-defeating system because it rewards an individual’s selfish instincts or id while banalising the meaning of civic duties or la vita activa as outlined by Hannah Arendt. A rational fool is a “wise creature for itself, but it is a shrewd thing” in politics and the economy. Socialism was a self-defeating system because it brutally criminalised individual self-love and rewarded loyalty instead of civility. 

So perhaps then, a new non-binary concept of liberty is needed? Challenges ahead require solutions beyond the capabilities of binary concepts. The logicalconclusionis a more humane neutral concept of liberty; a hybrid freedom with both pragmatic and idealistic elements that nurture an individual’s id but also the ego and superego to encourage a better balance between self-interest and society. Bacon’s advice to us all continues like this: “Divide with reason between self-love and society; and be so true to thyself, as thou be not false to others.” 

Solutions are counterintuitive as they demand individual sacrifices today for the good of abstract concepts such as society and humanity. This time-inconsistency problem favours the status quo, not change. How could politics (patient zero) convince rational fools to accept sacrifices and pain for the greater good of society? Moreover, solutions require affinity between individuals to collaborate, at a time when we are paranoid of others’ health and motives.

The mission of politics, best defined by Zygmunt Bauman as the “ability to decide which things need to be done”, has changed because the model and audience have switched from citizens to consumers. Hence why partisan politics is aggressively short-sighted, further exacerbating inequality and distrust. Power, which is the “ability to get things done”, needs politics to keep harmony in society by actually solving problems that really matter. 

It is evident to both rational fools and logical junkies, that politics is paralysed because power de facto resides with social moron plutocrats – a handful of families have more wealth than billions of individuals. As Thomas Piketty has demonstrated, the general rule in the grand theory of capital is that wealth grows faster than economic output and incomes. So while the wealthy concentrate wealth and power, inequality soars, amplifying distrust via the largely fake and kitsch content we watch, read and hear.

The limitations of negative freedom, made evident by the 2008 great recession and again with the coronavirus, have made rational fools in politics re-earth positive freedoms such as nationalism, and using tactics such as fear and coercion. So the rationalconclusion is the return of the retrograde concept of positive liberty (which Berlin warns leads to tyranny). This is because, as Milton Friedman observed, only crises produce real change that the “actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”. The neoliberal canons of austerity, privatisation, liberalisation, stabilisation and globalisation are being replaced with ideas “lying around” like nationalisation, inflation, protectionism and nationalism.

Pain before gain

Hence, why the thorny moral dilemma: Should anti-coronavirus measures to save millions of individuals with pre-existing conditions come at the expense of billions of individuals’ economic and mental well-being? Obviously there is a trade-off between flattening the infection curve and limiting the socio-economic damage in every country as the graph from the CEPR shows. But there is an extreme tension budding – particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – between business and safety; even the economy versus at-risk populations.  Consequently, the US has now become the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic as social distancing and quarantine measures are neither respected nor enforced to the required degree. 

In Italy too, containment measures were ignored until the death toll jumped, the economy was completely shut-down and nationalism was invoked to help flatten the curve. Countries in northern Europe (with the exception of the UK) are reported to be doing better, also due to a government response that has built trust. Countries in the Asia-Pacific have managed to flatten the curve also by relying on strong social norms around collective obedience. 

The present will be extremely painful for almost all of us, but especially for the most vulnerable and the unattended. Systemic shocks from the coronavirus, like the post-communist transition in Eastern Europe after 1989, will have profound transitionalcosts causing a transitional recession such as high unemployment, inflation and shortages. Indeed, the recession curve from the measures to fight the spread of coronavirus is remarkably identical to Joel S. Hellman’s J- Curve used to explain the cost-benefit of reform during post-communist transition.

Bill Gates is calling for a complete shut-down of the US economy for up to 10 weeks to stop the spread of COVID-19 and minimize the long-term economic impact. Gates is not a prophet, he knows the causes of pandemics because he pays attention to them and he has vast resources. Or is it: he has vast resources, that is why he pays attention to pandemics?!

Gates echoes Jeffrey Sachs pushing the “Washington Consensus” in former Eastern European countries. The consensus was that systemic change should be done as a shock-therapy transformation, not a gradual one. So will the “Science Consensus” of big bang economic shut-down be maintained, deepening the recession curve? Or will politicians decide a more gradual approach, putting short term profit over health?

The pandemic of rational fools, fuelled by rational choice economics and negative liberty politics, has paralysed humanity’s collective power in front of existential crises like the coronavirus and climate change. Knowing the causes of things does not automatically stop the pandemic of rational fools, COVID-19, and the imminent global economic recession. But it empowers individuals to alter the “hard-wired default setting” of being deeply self-centred.  If an individual is adept to commit beyond the self, society will be adept to solve existential crises. Since the coronavirus is a catalyst for personal change, let’s make it a sustainable one for us, humanity and the planet.

The coronavirus could become a catalyst for a systemic transformation of the multipolar order, like the collapse of the Berlin Wall was to the bipolar order. It has further highlighted the limitations of binary systems based on any one-size-fits-all models (homo economicus or politicus / negative or positive liberty). It provides an insight on Brexit, US politics, and what is to come in Europe first from the liberators of the far-right and after from the freedom fighters of the far left. This should motivate individuals to resist binary solutions to multi-dimensional problems and instead choose to conceptualise a more humane and purposeful way of living with others in society and in nature.

We need a realistic system that recognises that humans are “half-wise, half-blockhead creatures” and one which architecturally assists individuals to divide with reason between society and the self. The system must employ solutions that empower individuals to be responsible and accountable, and trust them to adopt a just value system on their own. The concept of neutral liberty derives its stimulus from the hope of reconciling security with freedom. It helps imagine a more humane vision of the past, present and future. So it must include effective behavioural and systemic safeguards from all types of tyranny (economic, social, political and natural), as well as encourage individuals to make solid commitments that require sacrifices.

We need to work to make money so we can live; and we need to labour to raise the next generation so we can grow – but we must also act for what we believe so we can change for the better. 

Epidamn Zeqo holds an MSc in European Political Economy from the London School of Economics and a dual MA in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St. Andrews. He previously served as the director of strategic planning and implementation of priorities with the municipality of Tirana.

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