May 5, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Should science play a role in guiding our responses – both private and governmental – to the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer, of course, is yes. No thoughtful person would for even a moment think to answer otherwise.

To answer this question “yes,” however, does not mean that you should turn yourself into an android programmed by epidemiologists, physicians, and other natural scientists. Even less does a “yes” answer imply that government policies should be crafted only, or even mainly, by these scientists. Indeed, to the extent that governments do treat the factual findings of natural scientists as sufficient grounds for commanding and controlling people, governments commit a logical fallacy – which is most irrational and unscientific.

David Hume famously exposed the “naturalistic fallacy,” which is committed whenever someone supposes that facts alone tell human beings what are and what aren’t appropriate courses of action. “Is” does not imply “ought.” Ever.

Of course, to lead a good life or to pursue sound government policy requires an awareness of the facts – an awareness as free as humanly possible from biases and superstitions. Reality is always relevant and, as Thomas Sowell rightly never tires of pointing out, never optional. But there is no “ought” that is divorced from human values, or from judgments about the relative weights of different and often conflicting human values.

Human Preferences are Facts, but Ones Not Discoverable by Science

To choose a course of action is to reject alternative courses of action. But on what basis is such a choice made? The answer is that the chooser believes that the benefits expected to result from taking the chosen course are greater than the benefits that likely would have been enjoyed had the next-most attractive course been taken instead. In what ‘currency,’ though, are these benefits reckoned? The answer, ultimately, is human well-being – whether the well-being only of the individual chooser or that of some larger group which the chooser does his or her best to take into consideration.

Human well-being, of course, requires being alive. And this well-being rises with greater physical health and with reduced risks of having one’s health put in peril. Life, health, and physical safety are unquestionably good and, hence, worthy to pursue. The sciences of medicine and epidemiology are, in turn, useful sources of information for pursuing these goods.

But physical health and safety are not of infinite value; they are not “priceless.” The same is true for life itself.

When stated so starkly, this observation strikes many people as being plainly mistaken. Yet everyone, every day, through his or her actions proves its truth. Every day every person acts in ways that demonstrate that he or she has many preferences that differ from, and sometimes are in competition with, the preference for survival and good health.

Here’s a familiar but useful example. In almost all cases when you travel in an automobile you increase your chances of being killed or injured. If you’re the driver, you also increase your chances of killing and injuring other people – your passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians. Yet you nevertheless choose to travel by automobile, thereby proving that you value the increased convenience and speed made possible by automobile travel over either not making the trip at all or making it by some less-perilous means. To choose to travel by car is to choose to put your own life and the lives of many others in greater danger.

Importantly, your choosing to travel by automobile is not evidence of your rejection of science, of your irrationality, or of your being blinded by some dodgy ideology. Your choice, instead, is evidence that the outcomes and experiences valued by human beings include more than physical well-being. Your choice is evidence also of the reality that additional increments of many of these other outcomes and experiences – things such as convenience, comfort, time, pleasure, excitement, helping others, contentment, enlightenment – are very often worth more than are the increments of health and safety that are sacrificed by pursuing additional amounts of these other outcomes and experiences.

To recognize this fact (!) about human preferences is to recognize that epidemiologists and other natural scientists are emphatically not scientifically able to determine what is for us – the many individuals who comprise society – the best response to COVID-19. While information supplied by these scientists is useful and should play a role in determining public policy, no such information, regardless of its accuracy, is sufficient to reveal to us or to governments what the ‘best’ response is. To suppose that it can play this role is akin to supposing that your family physician can scientifically determine when, for how long, and for what reasons you ‘should’ travel by automobile.

And We Are Not a ‘Me’ or a ‘You’

Complicating matters further are these two additional facts: First, society is comprised of millions upon millions of individuals and families; second, each individual’s preferences are uniquely his or her own. My preferences for safety and health almost certainly differ in their details from yours, and the preferences of each of us differ from those of Dr. Anthony Fauci, from Pres. Donald Trump, and from any television news anchor or writer for The Week. And because my preferences are best for me while yours are best for you, and because at least some of my preferences likely conflict with some of yours, there is no one collective set of preferences from which a scientifically discoverable “best” course of action can be chosen.

This latter conclusion, take note, is proven by science. Several versions of this proof exist, but the most famous and firmly established is Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. An implication of this Theorem is that, because different individuals have different preferences, there is simply no uniquely ‘best’ government response to COVID-19. And because that which doesn’t exist can’t be discovered, even the finest scientists working with unlimited budgets could not discover the ‘best’ response. 

(Note that this inability to discover “the” best response differs from – yet is made all the more indisputable by – the fact that individuals’ preferences change over time and that individuals learn. When individuals learn they frequently change their actions in ways that scientists who model their behavior find impossible to predict.)

The realities emphasized above do not mean that there is no legitimate role for government in this calamity. But they do mean, at the very least, that disputes over what are the best policy responses are possible – indeed, healthy – among men and women of intelligence and good will. Science does not reveal that any one particular response is superior to any of many other possible responses.

Yet I believe that the realities emphasized above mean also that skepticism of proposed responses should intensify the more heavily the proposals rely on top-down, one-size-forced-upon-all commands and controls. Economics, after all, itself is a science. And perhaps its most important discovery is that the amount of knowledge that is productively put to use in society decreases as more and more decision-making responsibility is taken from individuals on the ground and given to officials occupying government offices.

I can think of no greater offense against a genuinely scientific attitude than to support policies – especially ones adopted in haste and in a panic, and which diminish the amount of information that is uncovered and put to good use throughout society – simply because these policies are recommended by some epidemiologists.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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