August 24, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes
joe biden

Democratic Presidential hopeful Joe Biden is only the most high-profile politician to promise voters that he will “listen to the scientists,” mandate masks, and shut down the economy again if they so advise. Even the humble members of the city council of Milledgeville, Georgia invoke “science” in four pages of “whereas-es” designed to justify a largely toothless mask mandate that directly contradicts a Georgia law against wearing masks in public (except for certain holidays, presumably to deter real crime) and the enforcement of which in some places in the city of 50,000 apparently hinges on the font size of a door notice.

Strange times indeed, these. One wonders why we need to elect politicians at all if they will simply defer to “the” scientists. Ah, but there be the rub. Which scientists? They don’t agree on much, especially when it comes to the novel coronavirus and masks and such. (Just look at the litany of articles on the AIER website chronicling the dissents!) 

Should we listen only to “the” scientists on the government payroll? But then wouldn’t they essentially be unelected, unaccountable dictators? That sounds vaguely undemocratic. Sticky, this wicket!

Plus, last time I checked, “the” scientists have no policy expertise in economics. Perhaps that does not matter as many economists also have no policy expertise in economics. Is that the role of politicians, then? To decide which type of scientists get to dictate in different policy areas? Perhaps Biden will listen to “the” economists on spaceship design or military tactics? I would pay good money to see that! (Seriously, it would be a horribly expensive boondoggle certain to raise my taxes.)

Why is it so important to “listen to the scientists” anyway? Are they suddenly less fallible than previously? Is there any science to support that belief? Because let’s face it, “the” scientists have a pretty poor track record overall.

Did you know that “the” scientists once believed:

  1. That the earth is a flat disk, not a sphere, and that it resides at the center of the solar system and even the entire universe.
  2. Said earth was created like 6,000 years ago.
  3. Complex life forms spontaneously arise from inanimate matter.
  4. Species evolve by inheriting acquired characteristics.
  5. That sickness arises from an imbalance of the bodily humors or bad air (miasma!) and in either case is best restored by draining the afflicted person of blood and/or applying massive doses of mercury.
  6. Maternal thoughts cause birth defects.
  7. Human beings are not all equal but rather composed of races, some of which are superior to others. Just measure their skulls for proof!
  8. Phlogiston and caloric exist and explain combustion.
  9. If you cultivate an area, rainfall in that area will increase. “Rain follows the plow.”
  10. Another ice age was upon us in the 1970s.

And that is just a small sample of the silly and outrageous ideas once held by “the” scientists. (For some more recent whoppers, read this.) All those ideas have been dispelled by the functioning of science itself, so please do not mistake my point. The scientific method is one of the few rational methods of thought (some) humans employ and it does help to refine our understanding of important phenomena over time

The point is that “the” scientists are often wrong, very wrong, especially early on in the study of some aspect of the real world. But the realization that “the” scientists’ understanding improves over time rather than springing from their heads fully formed like Jove gives birth to a paradox: 

The more “novel” the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the less accurate “the” scientists can be about it, and hence the less reliable their policy prescriptions. (Think how our descendants will mock us for believing masks slowed viral transmission.) 

Conversely, the less novel the virus is, the weightier “the” scientific evidence is against lockdowns, mask mandates, and other novel policy prescriptions. Remember, widespread lockdowns/shelter-in-place orders are entirely new policies thought impolitic, impractical, and mercury purge-like until the current crisis. They are nothing like the quarantines of old, which cloistered away only the sick, or cordons, which were of limited geographical and temporal extent and constitutionality. And outside of clinical settings the efficacy of masks depends on the type of mask, how it is worn, and what the wearer is, or isn’t, doing at the time.

So what Joe Biden and other politicians invoking “the” scientists may really mean is “I don’t care enough about you to make difficult decisions so I am going to delegate to a group that I think you are dumb enough to defer to without question.” They would never admit that, of course, so it must remain speculative, but it fully accords with Public Choice Theory. 

A politician who really had the public’s interest at heart would, instead, say: “Times are tough. Some Americans have died from a natural cause and more are likely to. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do because viruses live by their own rules, not ours.” Executive orders and metaphorical wars can’t stop them. Obviously, it is unconstitutional, and deeply immoral, to order the death of some people (via suicide, murder, deferred healthcare, reduced income, and the myriad other costs of lockdown) in order to save others. And we can’t do the obvious and offer a live vaccine to volunteers to quickly and constitutionally build community immunity because there isn’t sufficient profit in that. So we have to wait until an expensive, modern vaccine becomes available in the next X months to Y decades. Until then, try to protect the most vulnerable people in your lives and remember, masks and social distancing are not panaceas.”

Of course those would not be the words of a mere politician, they would be the words of a true statesman.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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