1889 has been quite critical of pandemic modeling that government officials have relied on for their Covid-19 response. We have also criticized shutdown orders in light of flaws in the models. But let’s assume for a moment that the worst predictions really would have come true if nothing was done. Even in those worst case scenarios, it’s fair to ask if our governments did the right thing. Were involuntary shutdowns justified, or would people have found a way to both limit the contagion and maintain some level of productivity? Was putting healthy citizens under house arrest acceptable even if they were willing to risk infection?
While large groups of people are often compared to herd animals, we are not sheep. We don’t behave like animals. We can, have, and will step up when our communities are in danger. When government and journalists give incomplete or false information, people will act irrationally. Depending on the situation, some will blindly follow the first authoritative (or authoritarian) voice they hear. Others will reflexively rebel, simply because they sense they are not being told the truth. But when people are given good information - or at least not misled by bad information, they rise to the occasion.
Were There Less Restrictive Measures that Could Have Achieved the Government’s Interest?
Citizens are more likely to cooperate if they are given good information, even if the information consists of long lists of unknowns and recommended courses of action until more is known. People are good at weighing risk vs reward. Some are better than others but in general, no government will be as good at judging risks for individuals as individuals will be for themselves. Government officials should have advised people of the actual risks, and recommended appropriate courses of action, based on the best knowledge available at the time. And they should have let people judge the risk and reward of working during the pandemic for themselves.
If we had been told from the start, “Here’s what we know, here’s what we do not,” people would have been much more open to hearing revised opinions based on new information. Instead, we got scattered “experts” saying everything from “2.2 million people will die,” to, “It’s comparable to the flu.” The information was so varied, and delivered with such conflicting certitude, that many people gave up. Wearing a mask helps. No, wearing a mask makes no difference. No, wearing a mask is an incubator that will help the virus grow even faster.
This is in no way meant to say that differing views should have been suppressed. It looks as though dissenting views are going to be much closer to right than the original mainstream views. Rather, candid admission of what we knew and what we merely feared would have increased public trust. That trust would have led most people to take the best measures known at the time to prevent the worst outcomes from Covid-19. Those who did not comply would likely have had good reason: either their survival, financial or physical, depended on leaving the house, or other medical concerns justified other courses of action.
The presumption of liberty should permeate all responses to unknown and unknowable future catastrophes. If the risk to the community is uncertain, government should err on the side of maintaining liberty. That’s why we have a written constitution in the first place - so that short term fears don’t devolve into long-term tyranny. Government has a monopoly on force. But force is not the only tool government has at its disposal.
Would People Have Complied with Stay-at-Home Requests?
People can and will do quite a bit to take care not only of themselves and their loved ones, but also their community and even perfect strangers. It’s not unreasonable to think that people would have largely complied with reasonable social distancing requests. No doubt, some would have closed their businesses only under threat of legal sanctions. For most of these, in all likelihood staying open would have seemed the only viable way to pay bills and food put on the table. Who is to say these people would have been wrong for risking their health to continue a minimum basic livelihood? Who would dare to make that judgment for others?
It’s fair to wonder, in this era of misinformation, whether everyone would have trusted a government admonition that staying home was really the best thing for them. It’s also fair to ask if government was capable of making the judgment for everyone. Imagine you knew for certain that you would contract ebola if you left the safety of your house. Can you imagine any circumstance where you would leave your house? Perhaps if it was on fire. People will do what they believe is in their best interest. In most cases that includes avoiding terrible diseases. If public trust had been maintained, strong warnings would have sufficed for anyone who did not absolutely need to go about their business. And let’s face it, need is largely subjective, so in a free country, individuals should be able to see and act on need as they see fit.
One striking phenomenon during the reopening of the economy is the response of a frightened but vocal minority as lockdowns are lifted. It’s as though they have forgotten that my ability to go outside, my friend’s ability to open his business, and my neighbor’s ability to shop there do no impede their or their grandmother’s ability to stay isolated at home. In fact, our going out shortens the duration of Grandma’s voluntary shut-in. The sooner the rest of us are exposed to, and build an immunity to, the disease, the sooner Grandma will be able to rejoin society.
Is Lockdown of Healthy People Ever Justified?
Quarantine is an ancient government power. It allows government to prevent known sick persons from inflicting disease on the healthy. Knowingly spreading disease is akin to assault - it inflicts harm on those who are not offering aggression. Locking the sick in their homes to prevent this unintentional assault on the innocent is justified, if the disease is bad enough.
Locking away apparently healthy people because there is some risk they might be carriers of disease is more akin to an Orwellian Thoughtcrime, or perhaps precrime - those crimes contemplated but not yet committed. Our criminal justice system does not condone such before-the-fact punishment. Parolees may be denied clemency due to likelihood of recidivism, but their initial sentence is based on the actual commission (or attempt) of a crime. “Quarantines” of the healthy bear more resemblance to the violations of liberty committed by the British prior to the Revolution than they do to any American health measure ever legally implemented.
Is Central Planning of Health Better than Central Planning of the Economy?
One feature of socialism is central planning of the economy. It is hubris to expect one person, or one small group of people, whatever form that group might take, to correctly and efficiently map the contours of supply and demand onto an entire country’s production and consumption habits. This central planning is unable to respond to changes in demand, or to distinguish between differences in demand in different parts of the economy. The lack of individual profit motive starves these countries of accurate price signals, which are the best and most efficient way of getting goods and services where they are need the most. This is why socialism always results in a society being poor, and often in mass murder as well.
A similar hubris is involved in centrally planning a nation’s health. There is more than one kind of health. There is more than one kind of health risk. People have been forced to put off much needed “elective surgeries” to keep hospitals clear for a Covid crisis that has largely not materialized. Mental health problems from being stuck at home for so long have taken their toll. Drug abuse of all kinds has grown and obesity is even more a problem.
Just as citizens are most capable of weighing financial risk and rewards for themselves, they are also best at weighing health risks and rewards for themselves, and balancing them against financial and other concerns. We do it every day. Getting in a car is not completely safe, but if you refuse, you’re not going to go very far. Leaving the house has always been risky. On the other hand, 100% of house fires happen in the home. Staying locked away may carry less risk in some ways, but it is not entirely safe.
What Should Happen Next Time?
The task of governing in a crisis is unenviable (unless you fancy yourself a despot who could use the chaos of a crisis as a ladder to more power). Officials must make the best choice they can with limited information. In the aftermath of the first Covid crisis (many expect there to be another later this year), we must learn two important lessons: 1) trust people with the best information available, even if much of it is an admission of what we don’t know; and 2) trust people to make the best decisions for themselves. Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand in economics, the invisible hand of individuals making the best health choice for themselves results in the best health outcomes for the nation.
Mike Davis is a Research Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.