As the author of a book on opportunity cost, I might be expected to be enthusiastic about the idea that trade-offs are always important in economic and policy choices. This idea is summed up in the acryonymic slogan TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). In fact, however, a crucial section of Economics in Two Lessons is devoted to showing that There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch. It is only when all free lunches have been taken off the table that we reach a position described, in the standard jargon, as Pareto-optimal.
If a policy is not Pareto optimal, it’s possible to find one that is better in every respect. In the jargon, the first policy is dominated by the second.
That observation is relevant in a couple of crucial contexts. Lots of climate deniers want to claim that there is a trade off between reducing carbon emissions, through investment in renewables, and improving the living standards of poor people, by building coal-fired power stations. In reality, renewables are cheaper and more reliable than coal, and millions of poor people living near coal-fired power stations die every year from particulate pollution. Even without considering global heating, coal fired power is a dominated option.
Exactly the same is true in relation to pandemic policy. Any policy which leaves R > 1 (the pandemic keeps spreading) is dominated by stricter policies that ensure R < 1. The first policy will not only lead to continuing deaths, but it can never be relaxed. So, it will entail more economic losses in the longer run. By contrast, once the prevalence of the disease is reduced to zero, the stricter policy can be relaxed (to be slightly more realistic, it may need to be reintroduced on a temporary basis to deal with local outbreaks).
In this context, it’s striking that none of those talking about an R > 1 policy in Australia are prepared to spell out the trade-offs they envisage. That’s because any attempt to do so would expose the bankruptcy of their reasoning.
fn1. I also point out how Pareto’s economic analysis foreshadows his embrace of Fascism.