The Ethical and Economic Case Against Lockdowns

Last Friday, February 19, I gave about a 1.6 hour Zoom talk to Ryan Sullivan’s class at the Naval Postgraduate School.

It was titled “Don’t Forget What We Know: The Ethical and Economic Case Against Lockdowns.”

Here it is.

By the way, the most surprising thing I heard from Jeremy Horpedahl in his debate/discussion with Phil Magness is that when there’s an externality, there’s a presumption in favor of government intervention. I disagree and I say why at about the 28:50 point.

The Commissar Komisar discussion at 54:27 is based on a short blog post I did here.


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The Magness Horpedahl Convergence on Masks

Last week I posted on the lockdown debate between Phil Magness and Jeremy Horpedahl. I noted that Horpedahl and Magness were not very far apart on lockdowns. Magness opposes lockdowns and Horpedahl favors only very limited local lockdowns in response to local information about spikes in cases.

Today I watched the whole discussion over in order to focus on the extent to which they agreed or disagreed on mask mandates. There was more disagreement on mask mandates, with JH (I’ll use initials from now on instead of full names) favoring mandates more than PM. What was also interesting, though, is the extent to which they agreed. I’ll note some highlights and then briefly note other interesting parts of the discussion that didn’t relate to masks.


JH  argued (at about 15:10) that mask mandates are a small restriction on liberty. He also stated, though (at about 17:00), his strong objection to governors like South Dakota’s Kristi Noem telling that state’s residents that if they want to wear a mask, that’s fine, and if they don’t, that’s fine also. Politicians, he argued should be pushing personal responsibility.

Notice, though, that the mask messaging of politicians is different from the issue of mandating masks. Like JH, I would have preferred that Governor Noem strongly recommend masks. She could still say that it’s a personal choice but that in indoor situations with other people present, the wise choice is to wear them.

PM noted (45:40) that masks work indoors and that (46:40) 80% of the public wears masks when venturing out. Given that high percentage use, PM asked (54:10), what does a mask mandate achieve?

JH noted (56:10) that PM’s 80% figure is right but that in private indoor spaces (family gatherings, etc.) the percent is much lower. JH dd note that the mandate won’t get at that indoor behavior in people’s homes. He’s not quite right, by the way. Wc could have police patrolling houses to enforce a mandate. Fortunately, JH didn’t even countenance that; good for him. In short, both clearly opposed pushing enforcement into people’s homes.

JH later (1:08:30) pointed out that a lot of people comply with the mask mandate because it is the law. I agree. Which means that a mask mandate, even if not enforced strongly, will cause many people to wear masks.

I asked JH a question on line that they didn’t get to in Q&A. It was this: What is the extent of the mask mandate you favor. Do you favor it for indoors vs. outdoors, for example? (That wasn’t the exact wording but I don’t have the exact wording.) I was surprised that in 1.5 hours of discussion, at least 15 minutes of which were about masks, the question of indoor vs. outdoor didn’t come up. I still would like to know.

I want to know for two reasons: one intellectual and the other personal. When I walk around Monterey in pretty undense situations where I can walk by people quickly and stay at least 5 feet from them and usually 6 feet or more, I often get dirty looks (I think: it’s hard to tell whether the looks are dirty when people are wearing masks) and even critical and sometimes nasty comments from mask wearers. Does JH think that, if I were a carrier, I would be putting these people at much risk?

Vaccine Mandates

This was probably the area in which there was the biggest difference. JH said (1:09;20) that schools already have mandates for various vaccines so having a mandate for children to be vaccinated is not a large step. He also said that it’s reasonable to have a mandate for people who want to travel internationally or even on buses. He said that you could have a rule that if you aren’t vaccinated, then you would have to follow the other rules about masking and distancing. My question: How would an official know who was vaccinated? Wouldn’t it have to be something like “Show me your vaccine card.”

PM answered (1:11:00) that it’s premature even to consider a vaccine mandate when current demand vastly exceeds supply.

PM also made 2 other points. First, remember the infamous Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell in which the Court found forced sterilization constitutional and cited as precedent the existing compulsory vaccination laws. (That was the case in which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., justifyng forced sterilization, stated “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” and leading me to wonder whether Mr. Holmes had grandchildren.)

Second, said PM, it doesn’t make sense to require the tens of millions of Americans who have had COVID-19 to get vaccinated.

Trading Off Lives and Mental Health

One questioner asked how lives saved from government interventions should be traded off against mental health. Both JH and PM gave thoughtful answers.

JH pointed out (1:23:00) that many people have a tendency to dismiss the value of the lives of the elderly because they have little of it left. But he noted that many of the elderly badly want to live and that one reason is to be around grandchildren. People in their 20s, on the other hand, often take big risks that suggest that they don’t necessarily value their lives very highly. He could have cited a study that I think was done by Robert Hall, Gary Becker, and another economist that found older people willing to pay a lot to live another few months. (My memory on this is vague.)

PM noted (1:25:00) that the question of the tradeoff between lives and mental health assumes the efficacy of interventions, which is something that has not been established. He noted also that the very lockdowns at issue often require the elderly to wither away in nursing homes, being able to visit their loved ones only through a window.

I have two personal stories that relate directly to PM’s point above. The father-in-law of a good friend of mine is about 95 years old. He was in a nursing home and was isolated by law even though he didn’t have the disease. My friend’s wife (the elderly man’s daughter) flew all the way from California to Pennsylvania so that she could take him to a doctor’s appointment. That was the only way she could actually visit him in person. This is insane. A few months ago, they decided to move him out of the nursing home and into the home of one of the elderly man’s daughters so she could take care of him.

Another friend in the Monterey area who’s quite wealthy had a mother-in-law stuck in a nursing home in Pennsylvania. She was stuck there because of the regulations and not doing well. My friend hired a jet to bring her out to Monterey, where she had a good last few months before dying late last year.


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The Magness Horpedahl Convergence on Lockdowns

Yesterday I watched a debate between Phil Magness and Jeremy Horpedahl on lockdowns and liberty. Phil is a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research and Jeremy is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas. The debate was sponsored by the University of San Diego’s Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy and the Center for Health Law Policy and Bioethics. The moderator was Dov Fox, Professor of Law and Herzog Endowed Scholar at USD.

I had expected a debate about lockdowns, with Phil arguing against and Jeremy arguing in favor, but that’s not what it turned out to be. Phil did argue against, but Jeremy didn’t argue in favor.

I tend to take copious notes and here’s what I wrote down from Jeremy’s opening statement. This is not word for word, but it’s close.

Lockdowns are general shutdowns of non-essential industries.

There are two problems with lockdowns. First, they are very strong restrictions on people’s liberty. Second, all the lockdowns did was delay infections.

These restrictions did very little good and a lot of harm.

We should shut down where there’s an outbreak.

On the last sentence above, Jeremy gave the example of his own University, where 20% of the tests were positive the first week of classes in January and so they shut down for just a week. So the impression I got was that Jeremy believes only in localized shutdowns that last a short time. This is nothing like the lockdowns that we in California have to deal with. In fact, Jeremy stated that most states had abandoned lockdowns within a month of imposing them and it was only rare states like California that sustained them for 10 months.

In short, both Phil and Jeremy strongly oppose the extensive lockdowns we have had in California. I was gratified to hear that.

I had to leave the debate at 5:12 p.m. and so it’s possible that in Q&A Jeremy made stronger statements in favor of lockdowns but I think I’ve stated the views I heard accurately.

Much of the discussion was about masking and there were real differences between the two debaters about mask mandates. I’ll deal with that in a separate post.

One thing I liked was the civility of the discussion. Jeremy went first and set the tone by referring to Phil as his friend. Some debaters say this kind of thing and then go on to show that the person isn’t their friend at all, but that’s not what happened. Jeremy seemed genuinely friendly as did Phil in response.

I’ll update with a link to the recorded debate once I get one.


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AEA Hides Its Racist Past


I posted on Thursday about the fact that the officers and governance committees of the American Economic Association don’t know much about the literature on the economics and discrimination. In their statement, they wrote:

We recognize that we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.

I had thought at the time that they were simply ignorant of the literature. But it may be worse.

Commenter Richard Ebeling pointed out something I had missed: the AEA’s statement linked to literature on the “History of race and racism.” Take a look. Some of the items are excellent. The Richard Rothstein book, The Color of Law, is an example. I reviewed it positively here. Also, they recommend the movie Just Mercy, which my wife and I saw last month, and which is excellent. But the fact that they came up with a list would suggest that they did some kind of search. Where is the mention of work by Gary Becker or Thomas Sowell? Or how about work by Kenneth Arrow or Thomas Schelling?

And, most important, given that the list is presented by the AEA, where is the literature on Richard Ely, one of the founders, and the first secretary, of the American Economic Association, and a renowned racist? It’s not as if he hasn’t been studied. Princeton University economist Thomas C. Leonard wrote an excellent book, Illiberal Reformers, in which he documents the views of Ely and other Progressives. Ely called blacks people who “are for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such.”

The straightforward way to deal with the AEA’s racist past would be to acknowledge it. There’s lots to choose from. How about, for example, the time (1888) when the AEA “offered a prize for the best essay on the evils of unrestricted immigration?” (The quote is from Leonard’s book on p. 143.) A lot of the anti-immigrant sentiment at the time, Leonard notes, was based on race.

Or how about Ely’s hostility to Chinese immigrants? He wrote:

[T]he fullest unfolding of our national faculties requires the exclusion of discordant elements—like, for example, the Chinese. (1894, “Thoughts on Immigration, No. I”) [quoted in Clifford F. This and Ryan Daza, “Richard T. Ely: The Confederate Flag of the AEA?Econ Journal Watch, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2011, pp: 147-156.]

Or how about the fact that from 1962 to 2020, a prestigious lecture held every year at the annual AEA meetings was the Richard T. Ely lecture? To its credit, the AEA has suddenly deleted Ely’s name in the last few days. To its discredit, it says nothing about why.

Are we to believe that the AEA officers are ignorant of all this? One tell is that, as noted, they deleted the “Richard T. Ely” identifier from the annual lecture. Why do that suddenly if not for the fact that they do know something about the AEA’s racist past?

Of course, it’s possible that some of the AEA officers are ignorant. If so, I would recommend that they start with Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. And if are unwilling to take the time to read it, at least they should put in on their own reading list.

Here’s Russ Roberts’ interview of Leonard.

Here’s Arnold Kling’s review of Leonard’s book.



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