This post exposes Toby Ord’s excellent explanation of the systematic undervaluation of public goods, in ‘The Precipice’. It was originally given in terms of existential risk, however I will recast it in the topical context of a virus-borne pandemic to explain what I see happening with variant suppression, and discuss its implications.
Variant Suppression as a Global Public Good
Long gone seem the days where viruses can be expected to be regional phenomena; globalisation has seen that variants have bolted long before most governments could shut the stable doors.
The suppression of variants is therefore a global public good. Reducing the risk of new variants emerging benefits a global population, and one nation’s mutation-risk reduction does not affect another nation’s risk level or ability to reduce it.
Economic theory tells us nations systemically undervalue global public goods. This is best explained, as by Ord, with an example. The UK has a population of ~70 million people, or ~1% of the global population. Therefore it undervalues the global damage a new variant would impose by a factor 100, if acting purely in the interests of its population and neglecting 2nd order effects (like trade reduction, tourism restrictions, reduction of health risk via vaccines). Cast another way, the UK undervalues the global benefit of a risk-free world by a factor of 100.
Similarly, the generally observed free rider problem suggests all nations are incentivised to forgo the cost of variant suppression, by virtue of it being a cost. The UK’s base rate risk contribution is only 1% of the overall risk; an easy value to ignore, but quickly accumulates across all nations.
I expect the problem has factors which make it worse than just free-riding, such as the human condition of “us Vs them”. Until significant effort was put into undoing the trend, the default in western media (at least) was to name variants after other nations, which I expect acts to point the finger at others’, marking it as their responsibility – until that nation is unfortunate enough to be the source of a mutation itself.
What have we learned about GPGs and existential risk?
There is still no visible pressure to contribute to the global public good of mutation reduction. Ord highlights multilateral action as one option for “replacing altruism with prudence”; that is, replacing a dependence on nations to do the right thing with preemptive agreements, and punishments if they break it.
A coordinated globe could have worked harder to impose travel, and potentially other restrictions on nations with high case rates, regardless of their vaccination status. We should be concerned by the apparent victory of economic factors like tourism, keeping borders open and quarantine low. Admittedly, family and other relationships are good reasons for opening borders when risk is relatively low, in this instance. However, similar arguments for maintaining economic and social positioning could be made for an Artificial Intelligence intellectual arms race, at the cost of a global public good.
Have we learned about existential risk?
The free rider problem in existential risk will be much harder to crack than variant suppression, as the risk will likely have no day-to-day impact on citizens, asked to account for it – until it happens. Even with the rise of Covid our information channels were lacking: institutional disbelief about the severity of the pandemic lasted in the west way into March 2021, before lockdowns began. This could well be relevant for x-risk communications, where its effects are not even observed elsewhere first.
Regulation has historically been reactive. In fact, we thought we were prepared for a pandemic, with the UK cited as the nation most nation for a pandemic. Climate change is our closest experienced parallel, and most would argue policy in that field has also been too reactive. I would like to think we can learn the importance of proactivity, and the need to accept policies that are not in response to anything that has happened yet, but I’m not sure that’s the conclusion we can make from the ongoing COVID response.