July 13, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Opinions vary enormously about the merits of government-imposed lockdowns in response to the coronavirus. Some data get flung here, other data are paraded there, all amidst fiery discussions of the reality and relative importance of concepts that most of us had never heard of until just a few months ago – concepts such as herd immunity, comorbidity, T-cells, and the flattening of curves. Conclusions differing as starkly from each other as night differs from day are drawn, with ardent champions of each conclusion insisting that his or her stance is the one – the only one – justified by “science.”

Science Cannot Tell Us How to Make Trade-offs

By now, it’s become trite (but still true!) in the pages of sensible publications to note that the question of whether or not government should lock down the economy – and, if so, to what extent – is not one that can be answered by science. Science, of course, supplies information that is highly useful for choosing a course of action. How contagious is the coronavirus? How lethal is COVID-19? Do the health effects of this disease strike different age groups differently? What’s the likelihood of a vaccine becoming available within the next year? Within the next two years?

Scientific questions all. And, of course, the ones listed here are only a small sample of the complete set of relevant questions. But ask as many such questions as are appropriate, and answer each as thoroughly and as accurately as would Einstein, and you’ll find no answer to the Big Question: What should government do in response to the coronavirus?

To competently answer this Big Question requires knowledge that science cannot deliver. One of the most important (although not the only) species of knowledge that is scientifically undeliverable is knowledge of the preferences and risk tolerances of hundreds of millions of individuals. Preferences, including that for risk, are subjective and, hence, cannot even in principle be measured objectively. And these preferences change over time as people learn and gain new experiences.

In addition, preferences differ from person to person. The value that Betsy attaches to the freedom to reopen her retail store differs from the value that Barry puts on being able to return to his job on the factory floor. But if Betsy and Barry are under the jurisdiction of the same government, each must suffer or enjoy, as the case might be, whatever policy that government follows. To recognize that reducing the risk of exposure to coronavirus involves trade-offs, and to recognize also that the appropriate trade-off for Betsy almost certainly differs from that for Barry, is to recognize the absurdity of believing that determining the best government policy is a matter of science.

The Track Record Is Not Encouraging

Nevertheless, government must do something regarding COVID and the economy, even if the ‘something’ done is nothing. I confess to strongly leaning in the direction of having government do nothing. And my reason for this strong leaning is summarized by the two words “These people” – as in “What good reason have we to believe that these people in high government positions will make sensible decisions?”

These People are politically driven. Even if (contrary to fact) there were a scientifically determinable single best course of government action in this crisis, what reason have These People given us to believe that they are capable of finding that course and of understanding it? And even if These People could find and understand this scientifically ‘best’ course of action, what reason have we to believe that they possess the political fortitude to implement and stick to it?

More fundamentally, These People have an atrocious track record when it comes to the economy. These People routinely display appalling ignorance of the most basic facts of economic reality.

These People regularly act as if the world is filled with free lunches and as if reality is optional.

When they raise minimum wages, These People deny that low-skilled workers will suffer any negative consequences. When they raise tariffs, These People proclaim that the resulting greater scarcities at home will bring about greater abundance. When they defend rent control, These People, applauding themselves for helping poor families, remain oblivious to the resulting reduced availability and worsening quality of rental housing.

These People concoct in their political petri dishes the economic cancer of occupational licensing and then unleash it on society. In doing so, These People see only the increased incomes of the monopolists whose competitors are killed off. These People are blind to the harm suffered both by consumers and by those producers denied the opportunity to offer their services to the public.

These People defend the government-school monster-monopoly. They pump ever-more taxpayer money into this monster’s maw and insist that the monster’s continuing failures justify not ridding it of its monopoly status but, instead, stuffing it with ever-more taxpayer money.

These People seem not to understand the first thing about incentives.

These People either actively support or do nothing to oppose the calamitous “war on drugs.” This fact shouldn’t surprise, I guess: after all, These People profit from the banana republic practice of civil asset forfeiture – a practice These People declare to be an important “tool” in fighting the “war on drugs.”

Very many of These People believe that adults are children who, absent the kindly intervention of These People, will guzzle too many sugary drinks, ingest too many trans fats, and vape excessively.

These People insist that the typical American is too irresponsible to save for his or her own retirement. Yet many of These People cannot arrange for the government in which they serve to live within its own means. These People spend borrowed money like mad today and, without shame – or, maybe worse, without realizing it – pass the bill on to future generations. These People clearly haven’t the backbone to deny the most frivolous and costly goodies to their constituents. These People, after all, won’t be in office when the bills come due – so what do These People care about what happens in the future?

These People incessantly display utter ignorance of – or contempt for – basic economic realities. These People have done so for generations. Much of what These People say about economic matters is the economic equivalent of voodoo, and even more of what they do on the economic front is destructive. And These People are none too careful with facts: They frequently stoke fears, on the flimsiest of evidence, of looming calamities whenever doing so seems to justify their seizing more power.

What reason is there to trust that These People – whose incentives are never to look past the next election and to ignore consequences that are difficult to see if these consequences are spread over large numbers of individuals – are making a prudently considered trade-off between the lockdown’s costs and its benefits?

Why in the world should we trust with the power to lock down an economy These People?

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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