The Big Lesson of 2020

The year 2020 gave us a huge amount of evidence about the relative merits of government intervention and free markets. The bottom line is that government failed massively and free markets triumphed spectacularly (with one major exception) within the constraints that government placed on them. The one apparent exception to government failure is Operation Warp Speed but, as we shall see, that apparent exception may not be an exception at all.

This is the opening paragraph of David R. Henderson, “Markets Work, Government Doesn’t,” Defining Ideas, January 7, 2021.

An excerpt:

Yet a look at the evidence as of January 4 gives little basis for the view that lockdowns reduced deaths. It’s true that the COVID-19 death rate for locked-down California, at 675 per million residents, is well below the 988 and 1,029 for, respectively, Texas and Florida, which are relatively open. But the death rates for locked-down Michigan, New York, and New Jersey, at 1,341, 1,980, and 2,180 respectively, are well above the rates for Texas and Florida. To be sure, a more careful analysis that sifts through the data and accounts for factors other than lockdown—maybe climate matters—is needed. But on their face, the data give cold comfort.

Moreover, what if a more careful analysis did show that lockdowns prevented COVID-19 deaths? That’s not a slam-dunk case for lockdowns because the costs of lockdowns are huge. They are shattering the careers and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of restaurant workers, haircutters, gymnasium workers, and others. One might argue that the sacrifice is worth it, but isn’t it easier for vulnerable people, most of whom are old and have co-morbidities, to stay home? They would have to stay home anyway, so why insist that others who are younger and have fewer co-morbidities also stay home? Interestingly, California’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mark Ghaly, let the mask (pun intended) slip on December 9 when he admitted that the newly imposed ban on outdoor dining was “not a comment on the relative safety of outdoor dining.” You read that right. What, then, was his and Newsom’s purpose in putting tens of thousands of restaurant livelihoods at risk? Ghaly ’fessed up that the measure had to do “with the goal of keeping people at home.” But wouldn’t he and the other officials need to know what people prevented from dining out would do? What if a number of them instead went to other people’s houses and dined in? We were told again and again that policy decisions must be based on science, only to learn that many such decisions were made by politicians and bureaucrats who had no scientific basis for their decisions.

Another excerpt:

Consider, by contrast, the private sector. One reason that millions of people have been able to stay at home is that companies like Zoom have made our work from home possible. Note also that one reason we have Zoom is that years ago the US government allowed the founder of Zoom, Eric Yuan, to immigrate from China. If you want to count that as a success of government, you should note that the US government denied his visa applications eight times. The ninth time was the charm. And one reason we have been able to buy items when stores are closed is that Amazon has heroically stepped up to sell us items over the web and, although deliveries are slower than they were, presumably because of volume, they are still relatively quick. In case you’re worried that Yuan and Amazon pioneer Jeff Bezos are getting rich off us, they are. But our wealth from them is forty-five times their wealth from us. In 2004, Yale University economist and Nobel Prize winner William D. Nordhaus found that innovators keep for themselves approximately 2.2 percent of the value they create and that the rest goes to consumers.

Read the whole thing.

The list of government failures and market successes in the article is not nearly complete. Both areas are target-rich.



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890 Thousand Excess Deaths Due to Covid and Lockdowns

We find that shocks to unemployment are followed by statistically significant increases in mortality rates and declines in life expectancy. We use our results to assess the long-run effects of the COVID-19 economic recession on mortality and life expectancy. We estimate the size of the COVID-19-related unemployment to be between 2 and 5 times larger than the typical unemployment shock, depending on race/gender, resulting in a 3.0% increase in mortality rate and a 0.5% drop in life expectancy over the next 15 years for the overall American population. We also predict that the shock will disproportionately affect African-Americans and women, over a short horizon, while white men might suffer large consequences over longer horizons. These figures translate in [to] a staggering 0.89 million additional deaths over the next 15 years.

This is from Francesco Bianchi, Giada Bianchi, and Dongho Song, “The Long-Term Impact of the COVID-19 Unemployment Shock on Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates,” NBER Working Paper No. 28304, December 2020.

An excerpt:

For the overall population, the increase in the death rate following the COVID-19 pandemic implies a staggering 0.89 and 1.37 million excess deaths over the next 15 and 20 years, respectively. These numbers correspond to 0.24% and 0.37% of the projected US population at the 15- and 20-year horizons, respectively. For African- Americans, we estimate 180 thousand and 270 thousand excess deaths over the next 15 and 20 years, respectively. These numbers correspond to 0.34% and 0.49% of the projected African- American population at the 15- and 20-year horizons, respectively. For Whites, we estimate 0.82 and 1.21 million excess deaths over the next 15 and 20 years, respectively. These numbers correspond to 0.30% and 0.44% of the projected White population at the 15- and 20-year horizons, respectively. These numbers are roughly equally split between men and women.

Francesco Bianchi is an economist at Duke University, Giada Bianchi is an MD in the Division of Hematology, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital Harvard Medical School, and Dongho Song is an economist at the Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School.

The authors write:

We interpret these results as a strong indication that policymakers should take into consideration the severe, long-run implications of such a large economic recession on people’s lives when deliberating on COVID-19 recovery and containment measures. Without any doubt, lockdowns save lives, but they also contribute to the decline in real activity that can have severe consequences on health.

I’m not sure why they are confident that there is zero doubt that lockdowns save lives. They admit in the last quoted sentence above that lockdowns “contribute to the decline in real activity that can have severe consequences on health.” What if lockdowns are responsible for half of the bad unemployment consequences, and voluntary actions in response to the fear of getting the virus are responsible for the other half? Then, assuming a linear relationship between unemployment and fatalities, the lockdowns would be responsible for half of 0.89 million to 1.37 million deaths, which translates to between 450,000 deaths and 685,000 deaths. Can they really be confident that lockdowns saved at least 450,000 lives?


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There are no non-Bayesians in a foxhole

There is some level of danger that pushes even the most stubborn government bureaucracies to start acting semi-rationally. Tyler Cowen has a brilliant new post that clearly demonstrates that the US has not reached that point.

But things are much worse in the UK, due to a new variant of Covid-19 that spreads much more rapidly. As a result, the UK has switched to the “first dose first” approach, which is very likely to save lives.  And even if it doesn’t, the approach can be reversed at a far smaller cost than if the alternative view is correct.

The UK is already beginning to make substantial progress in vaccinating old people, who are of course much more likely to die of Covid-19:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said 23% of all over-80s in England have now been given a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, meaning some of the most vulnerable patients are getting the protection they need.

Given the new variant of Covid, the British are engaged in a race against the clock.

If the new variant becomes widespread in America before the vaccine is distributed, the entire country could end up being hit as hard as places like New Jersey, meaning several hundred thousand extra (unnecessary) deaths.  Let’s hope our public health authorities come to their senses before its too late.

PS.  For those who like numbers, here’s the sort of decision we face:

Likelihood of one dose first being the wrong approach:  Very low, say 10%.  Cost of adopting it if it is the wrong approach:  Relatively low, say a few thousand deaths.

Likelihood of two doses first being the wrong approach:  Very high, say 90%.  Cost of adopting it if it is the wrong approach:  Relatively high, say tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths.

You do the math.


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The costs of not maximizing aggregate utility

Many people don’t like utilitarianism. They advocate alternative (often deontological) approaches to ethics. In 2020, we saw the immense costs of some of those misguided ethical systems.

Scott Aaronson has an excellent post that begins with a discussion of why he believes our response to Covid was inexcusably slow. He discusses challenge trials of vaccines, and also a WWII-style plan to build manufacturing capacity just in case the vaccines were successful.  But he also considers possible objections to his arguments, such as the fact that moving faster imposes risks:

Let me now respond to three counterarguments that would surely come up in the comments if I didn’t address them.

1.  The Argument from Actual Risk. Every time this subject arises, someone patiently explains to me that, since a vaccine gets administered to billions of healthy people, the standards for its safety and efficacy need to be even higher than they are for ordinary medicines. Of course that’s true, and it strikes me as an excellent reason not to inject people with a completely untested vaccine! All I ask is that the people who are, or could be, harmed by a faulty vaccine, be weighed on the same moral scale as the people harmed by covid itself. As an example, we know that the Phase III clinical trials were repeatedly halted for days or weeks because of a single participant developing strange symptoms—often a participant who’d received the placebo rather than the actual vaccine! That person matters. Any future vaccine recipient who might develop similar symptoms matters. But the 10,000 people who die of covid every single day we delay, along with the hundreds of millions more impoverished, kept out of school, etc., matter equally. If we threw them all onto the same utilitarian scale, would we be making the same tradeoffs that we are now? I feel like the question answers itself.

And it’s not just vaccine development; we’ve also prioritized “ethics” over saving lives in the distribution of the vaccine:

Update (Jan. 1, 2021): If you want a sense of the on-the-ground realities of administering the vaccine in the US, check out this long post by Zvi Mowshowitz. Briefly, it looks like in my post, I gave those in charge way too much benefit of the doubt (!!). The Trump administration pledged to administer 20 million vaccines by the end of 2020; instead it administered fewer than 3 million. Crucially, this is not because of any problem with manufacturing or supply, but just because of pure bureaucratic blank-facedness. Incredibly, even as the pandemic rages, most of the vaccines are sitting in storage, at severe risk of spoiling … and officials’ primary concern is not to administer the precious doses, but just to make sure no one gets a dose “out of turn.” In contrast to Israel, where they’re now administering vaccines 24/7, including on Shabbat, with the goal being to get through the entire population as quickly as possible, in the US they’re moving at a snail’s pace and took off for the holidays. In Wisconsin, a pharmacist intentionally spoiled hundreds of doses; in West Virginia, they mistakenly gave antibody treatments instead of vaccines. There are no longer any terms to understand what’s happening other than those of black comedy.

Everyone is entitled to choose their own preferred ethical system as a guide to their daily life.  But there is only one reliable ethical system to be used in public policy—maximizing aggregate utility.  As soon as you ignore that goal, you end up killing lots of people for no good reason.

In retrospect, none of this should have been a surprise (although I admit to being caught off guard.)  I had assumed that our disgraceful policy of banning kidney markets was a one-off exception.  Now I see that the same instinct that leads to tens of thousands of excess deaths of people with kidneys disease also pervades our entire public health system.

Aaronson understands that this failure goes well beyond one individual or even one country; it’s a broader failure of society:

Furthermore, I could easily believe that there’s no one agent—neither Pfizer nor BioNTech nor Moderna, neither the CDC nor FDA nor other health or regulatory agencies, neither Bill Gates nor Moncef Slaoui—who could’ve unilaterally sped things up very much. If one of them tried, they would’ve simply been ostracized by the other parts of the system, and they probably all understood that. It might have taken a whole different civilization, with different attitudes about utility and risk.

At the same time, I do believe that utilitarianism is gradually gaining ground.  But there’s still much more work to be done.

HT:  Matt Yglesias


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I, Vaccine: How to Appreciate the Beautifully Simple

What a marvelous spectacle we have enjoyed this week, as the first wave of Covid-19 vaccines began shipping from Pfizer’s facilities in Michigan. Watching the news with my pre-teen son, as those box trucks rolled away carrying such precious frozen cargo, he said, “Wow, I bet that truck driver feels pretty good about his job right now.”  I nodded and replied, “Well said, son. I think maybe this is something we can all feel good about.”

Who can’t feel good about the mind-blowingly short duration it’s taken to develop a safe and effective vaccine? For the same reason, we should also be amazed at the complexity of its distribution. The Wall Street Journal captures the point

The effort to vaccinate the nation relies on chemists, factory workers, truck drivers, pilots, data scientists, bureaucrats, pharmacists and health-care workers. It requires ultracold freezers, dry ice, needles, masks and swabs converging simultaneously at thousands of locations across the country. To work, every one of the many and complicated links of the chain has to hold.


The distribution has been widely described as the biggest mobilization since World War II. Bravo!, I say. We need some awe-inspiring words to befit this marvelous spectacle. 

And yet, the vaccine itself is a relatively simple compound. It consists of Pfizer’s modified mRNA plus seven inactive ingredients as common as table sugar. The mRNA itself stands as an unprecedented achievement. Yet the compound is ordinary, even elegantly so. And it will save millions. What beauty in the simple!

For many, this facet of the story evokes the classic essay with the curious title, “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard Reed”. Originally published in 1958, this essay skillfully describes the materials that comprise an ordinary pencil, and the far reaches of the world whence those materials source. It also artfully describes the innumerable people around the world whose daily work contributes crucially to putting ordinary items such as pencils on nearby stores’ shelves.

That’s exactly how the WSJ describes the Pfizer mobilization. The vaccine must arrive at the right time in the right condition at thousands of locations around the country. And the efforts of myriad numbers of people from faraway places contribute to the mobilization. When you start to think about it, the amount of human coordination being achieved is astounding. It makes my son and me want to ask: Who designed such a marvelous plan? Who deserves credit for taking charge of this? The surprising answer that comes to us from the pencil is: no one! Leonard Reed’s ordinary little friend conveys the idea himself.

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies—millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding!


And again, the WSJ informs us exactly how this applies to how this week’s vaccine mobilization.

‘Everything has to come together—the packaging, the dry ice, the vials, the material itself. It all has to come together to the same place and have enough of it and exactly the right people there ready to take it,’ said Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. ‘Right now, there’s no conductor to the symphony,’ just many parts that each need to work.


This reflects the time-tested idea in economics that great things for humanity can be the result of people self-organizing through markets because they’re free to do so. Reed is channeling economics Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek, whose 1945 article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” describes market prices as a mechanism of human coordination that deserves to be marveled at.

I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do. But those who clamor for “conscious direction”—and who cannot believe that anything which has evolved without design (and even without our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously—should remember this: The problem is precisely how to extend the span of our utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.

Hayek is in turn channeling Adam Smith who pioneered the idea that people’s liberty to specialize and trade explains much of the wealth of nations. When people are free to truck, barter, and exchange according to their own terms, markets tend to happen, and price coordination tends to follow. For Smith, an invisible hand channels individual self-interest toward these broader gains. Toward a better life. 

This old idea is discussed in today’s economics textbooks with section headings like “comparative advantage” or “gains from trade,” and in some books as “price coordination”. Critics count the idea as dogma, but most economists take it as one of the cornerstones of our trade. This is why, for example, most economists oppose tariffs.

If that doesn’t impress you, try this other facet. Consider that each recipient of the vaccine has effectively harnessed the myriad efforts of the scattered multitudes. Imagine it is your turn next. Now imagine for a moment what it would feel like to employ millions of workers around the globe and to funnel all their efforts directly toward you in the form of a single and concentrated dose of betterment to your own well-being. See, that didn’t hurt at all. Congratulations, you’ve just received your Covid-19 inoculation, thanks in part to the invisible hand.


My pre-teen son has a long life ahead of him, I hope. How much better will it be than mine? If you ask our ordinary little friend the pencil, the recipe for human flourishing is pretty simple. Just add one part specialization according to comparative advantage, add a bit of faith in free people, and let the good stuff rise as people better themselves through price coordination. Economic freedom is amazingly complex, and so is the vaccine marvel.  Yet they both are beautifully simple, too. That’s something we can all feel good about.


Don’t get me wrong. Central planning is a major player in the success story we’re watching unfold. Vaccines are classically known to have inefficiencies on both the production and consumption sides, and non-price rationing is determining their allocation. It’s not like Pfizer is harnessing price-induced information to decide where shipments go. But still, there is pretty intense competition among vaccine suppliers. And there is something we can all feel good about here. Maybe even marvel at here. And much of it owes itself to the social coordinating force of market prices and globalized trade.


Edward J. Lopez teaches economics at Western Carolina University, where he is also director of the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise. His research focuses on the dynamics of legal and political institutions. His recent publications include “Informal Norms Trump Formal Constraints: The Evolution of Fiscal Policy Institutions in the United States” (Journal of Institutional Economics, 2017, with Peter T. Calcagno), and Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers: The Economic Engine of Political Change (Stanford University Press, 2013, with Wayne A. Leighton). He is Executive Director and Past President (2012-2014) of the Public Choice Society.


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Adding Demand to Increase Excess Demand

Possible 11th Pillar of Economic Wisdom: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

One of the most absurd things that have happened with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is that politicians have been trying to increase demand for a vaccine of which, not surprisingly at a zero price, there is a shortage.

The rationale for putting Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence, and Karen Pence at the front of the line way ahead of almost all of the rest of us is that it will persuade people that it’s safe and those otherwise-hesitant people will be more willing to take it. They might be more willing to take it, but if that’s the rationale, the rationale makes zero sense in December. Tens of millions of us are ready to take it now. There’s no need to persuade people to take it when there isn’t enough in the short term to satisfy all willing takers.

Hmmm. Do you think there might be another reason for Pelosi, McConnell, and Pence to take it now? Let’s scratch our heads really hard and we might come up with a reason.

Here it is. They’re selfish people who are using their privileged position to get immunized. This is Newsom French Laundry all over again.

This “patriotic” behavior on their part is the opposite of admirable.


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The FDA’s Deadly Caution

The earliest Moderna probably would have sold the mRNA-1273 vaccine would have been after it began scaling up manufacturing. A company doesn’t begin manufacturing until it believes in a product. In the timeline above, that’s March 23. But manufacturing takes some time to get going. Let’s assume that by April 1, five weeks from the date the first batch was shipped, Moderna begins offering mRNA-1273 for sale.

Sales start slowly. Supplies are limited. Only the bold and brave get inoculated. The rest of us, and Moderna, get some early, albeit messy, safety and efficacy data. This data helps Moderna improve the vaccine, dose, and dosing schedule. Having a ready market and a steady source of revenue, Moderna scales up production faster than in the timeline above.

In this scenario, inoculations could have begun at least 8.5 months earlier and, perhaps, the pandemic would have ended 240 days and 240,000 lives earlier. There’s little talk of lockdowns and the economy remains resilient.

This is from Charles L. Hooper and David R. Henderson, “The FDA’s Deadly Caution,” AIER, December 16, 2020. In it, we consider various scenarios for what would have happened had we had a truly free market in pharmaceuticals.

The one above is the most optimistic.

Read the whole thing.



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Lockdowns and Political Realignment

A few days ago the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed of mine, on the new Christmas restrictions that the Italian government passed for coping with Covid19. Here’s a link (gated).

I am not a fan of the restrictions. Italians are no longer free to move through the country; they may travel only within their respective regions or between regions rated as having a similar risk status. Regions are classified according a “color code”, depending from their infection rate and an assessment for their healthcare capabilities and response. On the webpage of Istituto Bruno Leoni, you can see the “barometer of liberty”: how constitutional rights are curtailed in different areas, and how the situation has changed over time. No region is free of restrictions and we have a national curfew. Movie theaters, theaters, and gyms are closed everywhere; most schools and all universities have adopted a regime of remote teaching.

The government is forecasting that in a matter of days, since the contagion situation is improving, all regions will be “yellow” (the lower level or risk) but they’ll be all treated as red (the higher level of risk). Between December 20th and January 6th nobody will be able to leave their own regional territory. On top of that, on December 25th and 26th and on January 1st, regardless of the level of risk in their region, Italians will be confined to their respective municipalities.

I was impressed by the comments by WSJ readers, and found rather amusing the one that pointed out it was clear I wasn’t a good Catholic, since I did not figure out that Midnight Mess should end 3,5 hours ahead of the usual time and not 2 (indeed, I did not account for people going back to their places). More generally speaking, however, from comments and Twitter I got the impression that the people sympathizing with my irritation were more right-leaning.

For once, I do not think that this has to do with the WSJ readership. In the last few months, people critical of lockdowns and many other Covid19 restrictions tended to be mostly from the right. The left has been generally supporting restrictions. Perhaps some left-wingers (the cosmopolitan or “well-read” left?) are more confident in expert judgment than conservatives are, re perhaps because the discussion has been framed as a conflict between “health and the economy” and do-gooders of all persuasions couldn’t possibly side with the economy.

Before Covid19, I was beginning to believe those who were foretelling a political realignment (for example, the always insightful Steve Davies) were right. The old coalition between conservative leaning and  libertarian leaning people was about to collapse, after Trumpism and Brexit. Many distinguished between “anywheres” and “somewheres-” people with roots and people with cosmopolitan attitudes, country and city. Identity politics was also making things more complicated, but seemed a force to reckon with – and, for the few libertarians, to compromise with.

Has the pandemic changed that? Will Covid19 be a defining moment, politically speaking? If so, what about political realignment? Will lockdowns and restrictions become the defining issues, dividing us politically according to our degree of enthusiasm for them? It seems to me that people on the conservative side were both more skeptical of experts and more hostile to restrictions to their own personal liberty. Is this an attitude libertarians share? Will it affect the way in which any of us sees herself politically? Or we will all be so eager to forget about Covid19 that we will go back to the same old political agreements and disagreements we had before.


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What Should We Fear Most and What Should We Do About It?

Some acquaintances recently paddled surfboards and kayaks into the Pacific to disperse a relative’s ashes where he loved to surf. During the memorial service, one brother of the deceased expressed concern about the risk from sharks.

The image of an aggressive shark in the deep ocean is graphic and terrifying, but the risk of mundane threats far outweighs the risk from shark attack. The dead man’s brother should worry much more about heart disease, which felled his brother, and devote his attention to lowering that and similar risks. There is only so much time and energy; each unit of energy spent on lowering the risk from sharks is one less unit that can be spent on hearts.

What should we fear? What threats are most likely to kill us? Setting aside cataclysmic events such as nuclear wars and planet-altering meteorites, there are some risks that generate a lot of fear but few deaths, such as shark attacks, terrorism, and killings by police. On the other end of the spectrum are everyday risks that kill a large number, such as heart disease and cancer. In between are risks from motor vehicle collisions and the seasonal flu. And this year is a new risk: COVID-19.

This is from David R. Henderson and Charles L. Hooper, “What Should We Fear Most and What Should We Do About It?, Regulation, Winter 2020-21.

Another excerpt:

Larger risks / The typical American faces much greater risk of death from comparatively mundane causes. Heart disease kills about 1 in 502 Americans each year, while cancer kills 1 in 542.

The number of deaths from seasonal flu varies significantly from year to year, but it has averaged about 40,000 in the United States in recent years, which works out to 1 death in 8,125 Americans. The good news is that rate has fallen significantly over the decades; if the death rate from flu in the 1950s and 1960s were applied to today’s population, we would see over 160,000 deaths per year.

If the death rates from these diseases seem high, it is because they are. Heart disease alone kills as many Americans each year as the combined U.S. combat casualties from all American wars.

Read the whole thing and check out our table.



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Freedom, the Harm Principle, and the COVID Vaccine

2020 has gone from being an all bad news year, to what I guess can be described as a good news/bad news kind of year. 

The good news?  We have several very promising vaccines that should be available fairly soon – in fact in record time.  The bad news is that public distrust about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine is surprisingly widespread; and it’s particularly high among African-Americans, according to NPR.  Three former presidents- Clinton, Bush and Obama- have all volunteered to receive the vaccine live in order to reassure the public over its safety.

Just last year before the pandemic hit there was a lot of discussion about the problems that have arisen as a result of the decisions by so-called “anti vaxxers-” those who refuse to take vaccines or have them administered to their children for either religious reasons or because they doubt the veracity of the science behind them.  I don’t need to make a lengthy case that such beliefs fly in the face of reality, so I won’t.  If you think vaccines cause autism you’re just dead wrong.

And yet as Ron Bailey over at Reason has adroitly noted – vaccines don’t in and of themselves solve the problem unless the vaccinations are widespread enough to help achieve herd immunity.  Public officials have to convince the public that the vaccine is effective in helping to solve the pandemic and safe.  As I have noted elsewhere, at the moment public trust in our political leadership is not especially high, for good reasons.

So what should a liberty-minded person think about the role that the state should play in getting the public as widely vaccinated as soon as possible?  Initially, one might believe that a libertarian would make this an individual decision – a person has the right to decide to do what she sees as best.  However, libertarians and liberty-minded individuals also very much believe in John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”.  The harm principle states that the only reason to restrict the actions of individuals is to prevent harm to others.  By not getting vaccinated individuals make hitting the herd immunity threshold a longer and more difficult goal to achieve, putting others directly at risk. 

So for those of us who defend the concept of liberty, vaccines seem to be an example where perhaps the state can and should use its coercive power to force citizens to be vaccinated, assuming the vaccine is deemed safe and effective.  While this runs contrary to the intuition one might expect, individuals who reject the vaccine are obviously violating the harm principle.

Should those of us who defend liberty endorse the idea that the state should set up mandatory vaccination clinics and drag people out of their homes in the night to vaccinate them?  Obviously not.  But just as schools require children to be vaccinated before attending, it seems to me that requiring a COVID vaccine for certain activities is a way to “encourage” such behavior.  One might even use the rather unpopular word “nudge”.  Want a driver’s license?  Show me your COVID vaccination.  Care to enter a public building?  You need to document you’ve been vaccinated.  Private businesses should take the same steps.  I would much rather peacefully and comfortably comb the aisles of Walmart and Costco without a mask but with my vaccination certificate.

Freedom and responsibility are tied at the hip, and we are at the point where we must individually agree to act swiftly and responsibly to help save lives – let’s get vaccinated as soon as possible and save the lives of others.  But let’s also accept that we must allow for the prospect that the state might have a role to play here.  If cigarettes are regulated because of the risk of secondhand smoke, encouraging COVID vaccination seems like a no-brainer.


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