BUCK: Trump, COVID, and Pascal’s Wager

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020


Blaise Pascal simplified his theism to basic gambling. In the absence of reason’s ability to conclusively prove the existence of God, one is left to speculation: theism proven false has few consequences and true belief brings paradise, whereas non-belief risks eternal punishment with little benefit if proven right. And so, Pascal concludes that it’s logical to believe.

As our country debates reopening the economy, President Donald Trump faces a similar wager. Models provide insight into the future but with data ever-changing, no application of reason can derive answers for policy and so Trump is left to wager.

Let’s begin with the assumption—though demonstrably false—that this novel coronavirus is comparable to influenza. If Trump opens the economy, the mild outbreak of coronavirus concurrent with the flu would surely strain hospitals but the American economy shrugs at 20,000-60,000 deaths. Similar figures occur every year but we go to work, touch our eyes, and willy-nilly breathe air without a mask regardless. Assuming COVID is no worse than the flu, to open the economy would be non-belief in a godless world—little pain, some gain.

Conversely, if the economy stays closed, it effectively pushes America and likely the world into a depression unlike we’ve ever seen. Tens of millions have already lost jobs, suicidality is rising, and alcohol sales have spiked. Unlike Pascal’s theism in a godless world, which carries no consequences, a shut-down in a pandemic-less world crushes millions—much pain, no gain.

Re-running the wagers assuming COVID’s reality, the two options are simple: open the economy too early with 2.2 million deaths by summer’s end or tank the economy to save lives. In either case, there’s a catastrophe.

Seeing as COVID-19 has become the leading cause of death in the United States, any wagers on a false pandemic are irrelevant. Conversely, either option assuming COVID’s reality risks tragedy. Trump’s wager isn’t Pascal’s. He’s left with two disaster scenarios to bet upon: stymie the virus but force an economic depression or stymie the economy and risk a Justinian plague. 

A few statisticians, most notably Robert VerBruggen of National Review, have attempted a cold analysis setting these two scenarios in opposition. Perhaps most interestingly, he notes that individuals regularly make economic gambles of their life—a higher paying job that carries an increased physical risk—and so economists can estimate the monetary ‘value’ of a life. Running through various calculations, VerBruggen concludes that “it is a good idea to practice social distancing for a bit and to entirely shut down the hardest-hit areas.”

Adding a layer of complexity to Trump’s current wager is an electoral perspective. As it stands, there’s rhetorical weight to casting our country as the victim of a communist cover-up with Trump as the unwitting leader of it all, making the best of a worst-case scenario. Like a lifeguard who botches the CPR for a homicide victim, Trump bears some guilt for his blunders but the blood remains on another’s hands. However, the guilt is his if he opens the economy too early, the pandemic spreads, and the economy falls regardless.

Furthermore, the choice between open and closed needn’t be dichotomous as theism and atheism. As the initial outbreak slows, focused-quarantines for those who test positive and general measures like mask-wearing allow for a third option: the expansion of an economy regulated to avoid the worst effects of a pandemic. Continued travel restrictions and deference to gubernatorial authority also focuses the most severe social distancing to hot-spots but allow unaffected areas to function.

Pascal summarized his wager such: “if you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose all.” In our case, whatever we gain is a crippled economy with a novel virus still running amok and whatever we lose remains, effectively, all.

Taking account of all risks, Trump’s best bet, quite literally, is to advance rhetoric of caution and federalist reliance upon state authority. Let’s hope Trump rolls his dice well and in the meantime, we can hedge our bets with masks and purell.

Alum of the University Wisconsin - Madison, Daniel studied English and Spanish as an undergraduate, later to receive a masters in education. He works as a teacher in a diverse school and hopes to show how conservatism presents a viable solution to the disparity and impoverishment that the left decries.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Daniel Buck

Alum of the University Wisconsin - Madison, Daniel studied English and Spanish as an undergraduate, later to receive a masters in education. He works as a teacher in a diverse school and hopes to show how conservatism presents a viable solution to the disparity and impoverishment that the left decries.

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