Who should bear the cost of a public good?

David MoonBlog

I watched with passive curiosity as the Knox County Board of Health closed local bars, then allowed them to reopen with a 10:00 pm curfew.

If Knoxvillians understand that our public health requires the complete or partial closure of bars, it is a great opportunity to put our collective money where our mouth is.

A person may feel virtuous when he proclaims that COVID-19 is health or science issue, not an economic one, but money is simply a tool we use to express our values. Of course, this is an economic problem.

For a moment, forget about infection rates, case fatality rates and the age skew of the health effects of COVID-19. Then ask yourself a series of questions.

How much would you be willing to spend to save the life of your child? How much would you spend to save the life of a stranger?

What if it’s not your money? How much of someone else’s money would you spend to save the life of your child or that of a stranger?

Are your answers any different? Perhaps I’m selfish or cruel, but mine are.

It is always easier to spend OPM – that is, Other People’s Money – than our own. That’s why it is easier to force bar owners/employees to go unemployed than it is to forego my own paycheck. I would close my business to save the life of my children, but not to reduce potential coronavirus spread among two-steppers at Cotton Eyed Joe.

It is easy to spend OPM when it comes from huge numbers of strangers you will never meet. That’s why we tend to think of federal money as “free.”

If Knox County’s safety requires closing bars, shouldn’t Knox County taxpayers pay the owners and employees of those businesses their normalized, pre-pandemic wages? Not the state. Not the federal government. When the government takes someone’s property to build a road, the government is supposed to pay market value for taking that asset.

Most people’s most valuable asset is their ability to produce income. How can we confiscate that asset from people without compensation?

If public health officials deem shutting down certain otherwise legal elements of the economy as a necessary public good, let the public – all the public – bear the cost of this benefit via higher taxes. Let’s see who still supports the shutdown when they have to pay for it.

The economic decisions related to this coronavirus are going to get harder, not easier. It is easy to say, “there is no cost too great to save a single life,” especially when the first few trillion dollars spent doing so seem to have simply appeared out of thin air.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.