London 2012

Can Olympics costs be ethically justified?

I am not a consequentialist, and so I am generally not prone to applying utility-maximization tests to every policy. Yet even I found my greatest-good-for-the-great-number buttons pressed by the news this week that the British government will invest £41million in opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. This comes on top of £40m the organizers had already budgeted for the ceremonies – and over £1 billion the government expects to spend on security costs.

My initial impulse, for this post, was to play the contrarian and devise an argument to justify the additional £41m ceremony expenditure. I can see two almost-plausible arguments here. The first is a directly consequentialist sort: an extravagant, televised Olympics will attract future tourists to London, bringing revenue to the government and job-creation to its citizens. But this relies on a flimsy empirical assumption. Perhaps a fancy ceremony can create buzz for a city not yet widely visited (Barcelona seems to have done well in this sense, and perhaps Beijing will ultimately benefit from its 2008 extravaganza). But could this plausibly be true of London? There is much debate over whether the Olympics in their entirety will be a net economic gain for the UK. Setting that aside, the idea that an extra £41m on the ceremonies (amid a total Olympic budget close to £10billion) will make much positive difference seems exceedingly implausible. (There’s a helpful discussion of general Olympic funding issues here. )

A second almost-plausible argument has something to do with national pride. Like people everywhere, many British people find personal value in their connection to the nation, and to its public stature. Almost no one expects the London Olympics opening to rival that of Beijing, but surely it matters to many that the ceremony not be a threadbare embarrassment. Perhaps, then, the additional funds are justified. To the extent that national pride contributes to individual identities, and to the extent that this contribution is conducive to individual wellbeing, then even an additional £41m may be money well spent.

Perhaps. But the form of this argument invites comparisons. Are there other ways £41m could contribute to the welbeing of Britons? Perhaps by mitigating spending cuts? By undergirding social service programs? The pro argument here must be that the ceremony expenditure provides either a unique or an especially welfare-multiplying value for money. Is it the case that the national pride stirred by well-executed ceremonies would contribute substantially more to individual wellbeing than some other use of the funds? That seems unclear, at best.

Public expenditure debate has a tendency to trigger utility-calculating impulses, even in non-consequentialists like me. I happen to think that such impulses must often be constrained by certain non-consequentialist principles (call them deontological if you like). But it’s not clear to me that there is any such principle relevant to this case. Therefore, at a time when public sector pensions are being unwound and social services are being cut, it appears difficult to provide an ethical justification for such a large expense on such an ultimately unimportant thing. But perhaps I have missed something here. A question for readers: do you see any grounds, consequentialist or otherwise, to ethically justify the additional £41m of Olympic ceremony public spending?

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