– April 14, 2020

At the outset of the coronavirus lockdowns my colleague Pete Earle penned a prescient article about the propensity of political actors to rewrite the history of the unfolding crisis in real time. Assisted by a thoroughly politicized national press corps, politicians across the spectrum were busy trying to retrofit blame for the unfolding pandemic to their own political talking points and weaponize it to justify aggressive government action.

Sadly but not unexpectedly, this real-time revisionism has only accelerated in the last month. We’ve now reached a point where reporters, public officeholders, and federal bureaucrats are now revising their own words and actions from only a few weeks prior – all while hoping that nobody will notice.

The latest example involves the unfolding controversy over President Donald Trump’s assertion of authority to set a national timeline for the repeal of the ongoing economic lockdown, presumably superseding state governors and local officials who refuse. Trump’s new position marks a sharp reversal from only two weeks prior, when his administration decided against similar actions in the opposite direction amid calls for him to impose a national lockdown.

Yet even Trump’s vacillation pales in comparison to his critics in the national press corps. While the press today fumes in outrage at Trump’s newly claimed power, only 10 days ago many of these same news outlets were clamoring for the very same national lockdown that Trump demurred.

Just two weeks ago reporters peppered Trump with questions about his failure to impose a national shelter in place order. They depicted a rift over this exact policy between the president and the ubiquitous Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal disease control bureaucrat turned media darling who appeared to favor such actions. By and large, the press took Fauci’s side.

On April 4, CNN intensified its pressure on Trump by running a story that called attention to the 8 holdout Republican governors who declined to place their states on lockdown. The story spawned a news cycle’s worth of chastisement against Trump for failing to rein in the renegade governors, and an accompanying Twitter campaign insisting that the failure to impose a national lockdown policy was “putting lives at risk.” Fast forward to April 14, and CNN is now leading the charge against Trump’s assertion of a superseding power to reopen the economy.

It’s worth pointing out that our federal system of government entails that presidents lack the authority to either impose or supersede state governors on matters of lockdowns and quarantines. Our national press corps only cares though when it is asserted to relax existing regulations, and would happily deploy it in the other direction – as many of them pressured Trump to do when it suited them.

This real-time historical revisionism has spilled over into several governors offices as well. Consider the case of Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who rebuffed Trump’s pressures to relax her state’s lockdown in an April 14th interview with The New York Times. According to Raimondo, “the reality is this virus doesn’t care about state borders, and our response shouldn’t either.”

One wonders what brought about this change of sentiments. Just three weeks ago, Raimondo seemed to believe that state borders provided a powerful tool in stopping COVID’s spread. On March 27th she set up police checkpoints on Interstate 95 to stop and register all drivers with New York license plates who crossed her state’s border, with the intention of using the National Guard to force them into quarantine. She altered course a few days later after a public imbroglio over the policy and threatened lawsuits from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Curiously, the efficacy of state borders as a virus containment measure seems to depend on the political circumstance of the moment.

Returning to the Trump administration, we see additional real-time revisionism in its own account of the early months of the virus response. In an interview over the weekend, Fauci depicted himself as having raised the alarm about the coronavirus threat back in February, speculating that an earlier lockdown policy would have mitigated the current crisis.

Contrast this with Fauci’s words in a February 17th interview with USA Today, where he publicly hedged his bets on the virus response and at one point described its threat to the United States as “minuscule.”

It’s entirely reasonable to permit political figures some leeway to update their positions as new information becomes available, and the current pandemic is certainly starved for reliable information. But the perverse incentive structure of our media-fueled political discourse either penalizes such adjustments when they may be used to embarrass a disliked opponent, or flippantly indulges them out of convenience to their own ideological preferences.

They defy the self-projected image of a government that is “in command” of the crisis, and that may be turned to for a competent, expert-guided solution imposed from the top down. In reality, our politicians, bureaucrats, and the news media that report on them are flying by the seat of their pants, and erring along the way in a pattern of visible public mistakes and self-contradictions.

Predictive errors in policymaking are inevitable, and reveal that our political classes know far less than they would have us believe as they imagine themselves taking charge of and designing an appropriate policy response. But rather than accepting the epistemic limitations of the current crisis as a reason to abstain from aggressive policies, they double down on the same. And when their chosen courses go awry or fail to deliver on their promised salvation, history is rewritten to obscure the fact that such promises were ever made.

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phil Magness is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of numerous works on economic history, taxation, economic inequality, the history of slavery, and education policy in the United States.

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