Does eliminating disease spur economic growth?

A loyal MR reader asks:

…is the flow of research against malaria and other targeted diseases
good or bad (or mixed) for the recipients?  I have been a believer that
eliminating diseases would have a big impact on economic growth, but
Foreign Affairs recently had an article attacking the concentration of
charity dollars in a few diseases as tending to distort funding
allocations away from the most important local needs.

The fight against disease, taken alone, won’t improve matters much.  There are, let’s say, thirty different major problems in sub-Saharan Africa.  Eliminating any one of these problems will hardly matter, even if there is no Malthusian trap.  Economic growth is all about complementary factors, and more generally it is hard to produce outputs of real economic value.

I favor Michael Kremer’s plan to offer prizes for vaccines against diseases in poor countries.  It doesn’t cost a fortune, and its successes are as likely to boost other forms of aid as take away from them.  The lives are worth saving for their own sake, and perhaps it will herald a larger push out of misery.  But, taken alone, such an initiative won’t much improve measured economic growth.

On the other side of the debate, this Jeff Sachs paper argues that disease kills the young, thereby requiring excessively large families as a form of insurance, and underinvestment in the human capital of each child.  Limiting disease might reverse this negative dynamic, though I am less inclined to see any unique lever in this kind of vicious cycle.

#42 out of 50.


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