Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer is in a bind. Inaugurated just sixteen months ago, after campaigning to “fix the damn roads,” she must now deal with an unprecedented public health crisis, a cratering economy, a state legislature controlled by Republicans, and small but noisy protests in Lansing. On top of all this, she may also be Joe Biden’s running mate in the November elections.
Michiganders cannot reasonably expect the governor to handle so many problems without making mistakes. So despite her now-rescinded state-of-emergency measures banning lawn mowing, selling house paint, and motor boating, Whitmer still has high approval ratings. In times of crisis, citizens want their executives to act decisively, with haste if not perfect foresight.
Some mistakes, however, are worse than others. Whitmer has shut down all “nonessential” activities, correctly ranking public health above making money or entertainment in our hierarchy of values—although what she considers essential seems arbitrary if not ideological (e.g. abortion). Power grabs by politicians during a crisis are nothing new. Just as problematic is what her words and deeds reveal about her thinking, especially about economics.
In her April 30 virtual town hall meeting, the governor made a few references to “turning the dial” in allowing business and other activities to resume. To Whitmer, this abstraction known as “the economy” is like a machine that can be turned on and off, sped up and slowed down by politicians. She also said her executive decisions would be guided solely by scientific data; she would not “play political games” with Republicans in the legislature.
To exaggerate only slightly, such thinking is inhumane. It fails to recognize that “the economy” is nothing more than countless individuals buying and selling, producing and consuming, not only to meet their basic needs but also to live out their vocations. As Friedrich Hayek noted in his 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” no person or even group of persons, no matter how wise, can attain enough information to plan economic activity from on high. Regardless of its supposed efficiency, central planning is an immoral denial of human agency and diversity.
Before returning to my hometown of Flint, I spent the last twenty years living in Italy, which has also suffered greatly from the coronavirus and decades of politicians’ bad economic thinking. It was once the home of much humanistic thought, aptly revealed by some recent remarks of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. A former law professor, Conte impressively cited Plato, Aristotle, and the distinction between doxa, or common opinion, and epistème, or scientific knowledge (unfortunately without mentioning gnosis or knowledge gained by experience). Most American politicians would be embarrassed to display such erudition. Nevertheless, he too said science alone would guide his decisions.
Politicians such as Whitmer and Conte mistakenly rely on one form of knowledge to the exclusion of other, equally important forms. Like the teachers in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, they give us nothing but facts, facts, facts. As political leaders, however, they must decide which facts are relevant, how to present them rhetorically, and what to do with them. They cannot dispense with the cardinal virtue of prudence or practical reason.
If Whitmer’s economics is inhumane, what is the alternative? In A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market, the German economist Wilhelm Röpke expounded a more philosophic understanding of economics situated in what used to be called bourgeois society, characterized by respect for private property, the rule of law, thrift, and concern for the future. Local traditions and religions encouraged responsible innovations and reforms. Communities valued what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.” Above all, there was a shared recognition that we do not live by bread alone.
It may sound quaint, but a humane economy is not an irrational one. It would be foolish to deny the validity of science in our time. We will not escape the scourge of this pandemic without a vaccine, and all but the most hard-core Bernie Bros will soon forgive Big Pharma its profit-driven sins. The proper use of statistics can save us from many common fallacies.
Yet our over-reliance on data in politics and economics has come at a cost. It is why Governor Whitmer treats her opponents like cogs in a machine, mere speedbumps on the hyper-rational superhighway of progress rather than free and responsible citizens. It may be too much to ask her to become philosophic in the midst of a crisis; remembering that experts should be “on tap rather than on top” is probably good enough. Broaden your thinking, Madame Governor, because politics is an art as much as a science.
Kishore Jayabalan is a former Vatican official and former director of Istituto Acton in Rome.