October 19, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes
question marks, woman

Yesterday, I reviewed the first half of Tyler Cowen’s critique of the Great Barrington Declaration. This is the last half. As before, the quoted sections are his and the non-quoted sections are mine.

Here are the key words of the Great Barrington Declaration on herd immunity:

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

And then:

What exactly does the word “allow” mean in this context? Again the passivity is evident, as if humans should just line up in the proper order of virus exposure and submit to nature’s will. How about instead we channel our inner Ayn Rand and stress the role of human agency? Something like: “Herd immunity will come from a combination of exposure to the virus through natural infection and the widespread use of vaccines. Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process.”

It means, as the document says, “allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally.” I’m not sure why Cowen has trouble understanding. Allowing people to live their lives has nothing to do with passivity. It certainly is consistent with the idea of human agency, even if you don’t go all Ayn Rand on it. When people are allowed to do something, that doesn’t mean they have to do it. There’s necessarily human agency.

He’s right about how herd immunity will come about. But then he says, “Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process.” The problem here is, as former Obama economist Austan Goolsbee pointed out in a related context, that this is like the old economics joke where the punch line is “assume a can opener.” We don’t yet have a vaccine, so right now maximizing the role of vaccines gets you to a maximum of zero.

In practical terms, the most problematic paragraph in the declaration is this one:

Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

In most parts of the Western world, normal openings for restaurants, sporting events and workplaces are likely to lead to spiraling caseloads and overloaded hospitals, as is already a risk in some of the harder-hit parts of Europe. Reopenings, to the extent they work, rely on a government that so scares people that attendance remains low even with reopening.

The middle paragraph is from the Great Barrington Declaration. The paragraphs that bookend it are from Cowen.

I’m not familiar with Europe but Georgia (in the United States) opened without overloaded hospitals. As for spiraling caseloads, that’s part of how you reach herd immunity. And if you follow his link to a Bloomberg article, you’ll see that it says not a word about overloaded hospitals.

Cowen is right that governments have reacted by scaring people. That’s one reason the Great Barrington Declaration is important. It seeks to tell people not to be so afraid unless they’re particularly vulnerable. Notice the statement in the Declaration that “Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home.” The authors are not saying that they should be forced to; they’re saying they should. As I understand the Declaration, they’re trying to talk to young people as well as others and say, in effect, “Come in, the water’s fine.” Does Cowen object? If so, he doesn’t make clear and he doesn’t say why.

Don’t get me wrong: The Great Barrington strategy is a tempting one. Coming out of a libertarian think tank, it tries to procure maximum liberty for commerce and daily life. It is a seductive idea. Yet consistency of message is not an unalloyed good, even when the subject is liberty. And when there is a pandemic, one of the government’s most vital roles is to secure public goods, such as vaccines.

Notice how he jumps from the idea that the message is tempting and seductive (I agree) to government’s role in vaccines. Little problem: WE DON’T HAVE A VACCINE. The Great Barrington Declaration makes clear that it’s addressed to what to do while we’re waiting for a vaccine. Insert can opener joke.

The declaration is disappointing because it is looking for an easy way out — first by taking the best alternatives for fighting Covid off the table, then by pretending a normal state of affairs is also an optimum state of affairs.

Does he care to tell us what “the best alternatives for fighting Covid” are? It strikes me that he has two in mind: (1) vaccines, which haven’t yet been approved, in part thanks to the FDA, which Cowen has earlier said should not approve one from Russia, and (2) lockdowns, which Cowen says aren’t that important and, by the way, we should tighten them.

My worldview is both more hopeful and more tragic. There is no normal here, but we can do better — with vigorous actions to combat Covid-19, including government actions. The conception of human nature evident in the Great Barrington Declaration is so passive, it raises the question of whether it even qualifies as a defense of natural liberty.

I missed the hopeful part. OK, so what are the vigorous actions that include government actions? Blank out, as the aforementioned Ayn Rand loved to say. And how does he know that the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration would not favor those actions? Cowen is fixated on the idea that three non-libertarians produced a libertarian statement. As I mentioned in Part 1, that sends him down a rabbit hole from which he doesn’t emerge.

Reprinted from EconLog

David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a Senior Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research.

He is also a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and emeritus professor of economics with the Naval Postgraduate School, is editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

David was previously the senior economist for health policy with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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