The totalitarian temptation

Opponents of libertarianism often point out that there are cases where government mandates can be welfare improving. I accept that argument, but not the implications that people draw from that fact.

The real question is not whether government power can make things better; it is whether government power will make things better, on average. I believe the answer is no.

I recently saw an article on mask regulations that made me almost burst out laughing:

After previously prohibiting local jurisdictions from imposing mask mandates, Mr. Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order Thursday requiring residents to wear masks in public spaces, except in counties with 20 or fewer cases of coronavirus. Cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been rising for weeks in the state.

Notice the governor’s supreme confidence in his wisdom.  A week ago he was so confident that mask mandates were a bad idea that he banned local governments—which presumably know their situation better than someone in faraway Austin—from mandating the wearing of masks.  He didn’t recommend against local mask mandates, he banned them.  Today this same individual is so confident that mandates are a good idea that he is requiring many local governments to ban masks.  He’s not recommending they do so, he’s requiring mask bans.

This is not about whether mask wearing is a good idea (I favor mask wearing and private sector mandates but oppose government mandates), this is about whether we can trust government officials to recognize that they don’t have all the answers, and that sometimes they should allow others to decide for themselves.  As soon as one gives power to government officials they will abuse that power, they will assume they know what’s best for us.

Pierre Lemieux has a new post that provides another such example.  He cites a WSJ article on masks:

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!” He has since apologized and now supports wearing them.

White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said this month that he initially dismissed masks because medical workers were facing a shortage in supplies. He, too, is now an advocate.

I can’t overstate the damage done by these lies.  It would be one thing if the authorities had said, “masks are effective, but we have a shortage so don’t wear them.”  Even that would be slightly misleading, as the shortage was created by the government.  Instead they lied and said masks are not effective, as a way to discourage their use.  These government officials assumed that the public could not be trusted with true information.

In the future, public health officials might recommend that children be vaccinated for the measles, and people will recall when they were lied to about the efficacy of masks.

Over time, government mandates become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The government has so many mandates that the public begins to assume that if something is not banned it must be safe.  They might assume that if masks are not required then they must be unneeded.  It then becomes more difficult to get voluntary compliance.

We’ve seen this in banking, where people stopped paying attention to the safety and soundness of banks after FDIC was instituted.  Before deposit insurance was mandated, people were very reluctant to deposit money in banks that were making lots of risky loans.  Now they don’t care.  If the public is treated like little children, they begin to behave like children.  Government power advocates then say, “see, the public is infantile and they must be told what to do.”

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Masks: Dr. Fauci Confirms My Hypothesis

According to a Wall Street Journal story of June 29 (“Masks Could Help Stop Coronavirus. So Why Are They Still Controversial?”), Dr. Anthony Fauci confirmed a hypothesis I proposed in an Econlog post of the same day: the long-lasting detrimental advice by the US government against ordinary people wearing masks was motivated by their shortage. This shortage was itself created by the governments’ own price-controls and their efforts to commandeer the consequently insufficient quantity supplied. The WSJ writes:

White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said this month that he initially dismissed masks because medical workers were facing a shortage in supplies.

The link in the quote above points to a June 16 WSJ story that does not in fact mention anything like that—but the story might have been modified (as happens often) and I missed a previous version.

One example of the (obvious) usefulness of masks given by the Wall Street Journal:

In Asia, the majority of people voluntarily use face coverings and it is mainly Western expatriates who are reluctant to adopt them, said Prof. Yuen Kwok-Yung, a leading coronavirus expert who advises the Hong Kong government.

Hong Kong, with 7.5 million residents, is one of the most densely populated places on earth, but recorded only six deaths from Covid-19 despite having no lockdown and receiving nearly 350,000, [sic] travelers a day from abroad until authorities started reducing cross-border travel on January 30. Around half of the arrivals were from mainland China, where the virus originated.

The key secret of Hong Kong’s success, Prof. Yuen said, is that the mask compliance rate during morning rush hour is 97%.

Export controls by foreign governments (remember that the US government also restricted exports) have worsened the problem created by price controls and the Defense Production Act. As usual, more government dirigisme does not improve production and allocation.

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The Scientific Look-and-Feel of Public Health

An individual with a human brain can make the following value judgments: (1) maximum health is the most important thing in human life; (2) health must be as equal among individuals as physically possible; and (3) these two value judgments should be imposed on everybody. Once this is done, the most efficient means to pursue these goals can be scientifically studied, using both the medical sciences, economics (including, at the first rank, public choice analysis), and possibly other sciences. (I take a science to be a body of logical theories not disproved by observable facts.)

Of course, it will likely be found that the presence of two objective functions—maximize health and maximize equality—requires trade-offs. For example, some academics and government bureaucrats might have to eschew maximum health in order to equalize their health opportunities with ordinary people. But let’s ignore this complication.

As often, a comment in The Lancet, the venerable British medical and social-justice-warrior journal, can serve as an illustration: see Colin Angus, “Taking Public Health Policy Models Upstream,” March 1, 2020. Once value judgments like those above are accepted, the article does have a scientific look and feel. But, as far as I can see (and I am willing to be proven wrong if I am), it’s merely a look and feel. The medical sciences behind which it hides are of course scientific in any serious meaning of the term but they have nothing to say about how individuals make trade-offs on the basis of their preferences (or biases), how individual choices can be compatible in a social context, and how individual preferences can or cannot be aggregated in any sort of egalitarian way.

The article starts with the moral goal of “the reduction of societal inequalities.” The goal of reducing inequalities is certainly a value judgment that Professor Angus is free to espouse. The word “societal,” though, has no scientific meaning. It can be traced to a Minor Hugo, probably the pen name of Luke James Hansard, a utopian communist and follower of French theorist Charles Fourier. In 1843, Minor Hugo wrote:

Our monetary system, like that of trade, or any other societal occupation, is unfair from first to last.

The term “societal” does not convey anything useful that “social” doesn’t incorporate, except that it looks more serious, gnostic, more like scientific socialism. Still very rare (hence its alchemic value), the term really took off only in the 1960s, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer (see chart below). At that time, scientific students of society and the economy were and still are content with “social”—including in the scientific analysis of welfare economics and social choice. Interestingly, “societal” seems on the wane, but perhaps not in The Lancet.

Interestingly, “societal” is often used by corporations as a PR term to boast of their contributions to “society,” meaning mainly noisy and politically correct “stakeholders.”

The Lancet article also speaks of “economical, cultural, or environmental policies.” “Economical policies”? One might think that the author and his editors want to make tabula rasa of what has been learned before them, but looking scientific and obscure may be a better hypothesis. Later in the piece, though, we encounter the standard expression of “economic policies.”

A minor point also fuels an impression of confusion: the author seems to assume that “financial” and “economic” are synonyms when he mentions some “policies’ redistributive financial effects.” “Economic” normally refers to the use of resources while “financial” refers to claims on those resources—claims of which money is one sort. If the author thinks that economics deals primarily with money and Wall Street matters, he is mistaken, as reading Adam Smith or Jean-Baptiste Say (for example) would show him. Perhaps he should use “financietal”?

The medical sciences are true sciences that have much to say on physical phenomena—the biology of epidemics for example—but nothing on how individuals should make trade-offs between different good things, and very little on how they actually make them.

Academic figureheads of “public health” as we know it sometimes admit that it is a political movement more than anything else. In the fifth edition of his textbook Public Health: What It Is and How It Works (2012), Bernard Turnock writes:

In many respects, it is more reasonable to view public health as a movement than as a profession.

Similarly, the late Elizabeth Fee wrote, in her introduction to George Rosen’s A History of Public Health (2015):

Public health is not just a set of disciplines, information, and techniques but is, above all, a shared social vision.

The public health movement aims to use state force to impose its participants’ moral intuitions on everybody else—or, at best, to persuade some electoral majority to impose their shared values and lifestyles on minorities. No wonder why, when a real epidemic comes, public health is so underwhelming. Of science, public health only has the look and feel.

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In an Epidemic, Individuals are not Plants

An econometric study by Austan Goolsbee and Chad Syverson of the University of Chicago estimates that the lockdowns imposed by state and local governments may have been responsible for only 7% of the drop in economic activity. Most of the impact came from individuals who decided to avoid crowded places, as can be seen by comparing traffic in shops that were not under lockdown orders and those that were.

This is consistent with a basic economic idea: individuals respond to incentives (here, the fear of being infected), even in the absence of coercion. People are not just plants.

The authors used a database of cellphone data on foot traffic spanning contiguous counties subjected to different or differently-timed legal restrictions from March 1 to May 16. The data comprise more than 2.25 million business locations. (Note that the study tracks only foot traffic for consumption purchase, not traffic for work purposes.)

The main results of this working paper:

The results indicate that legal shutdown orders account for a modest share of the massive overall changes in consumer behavior. Total foot traffic fell by more than 60 percentage points, but legal restrictions explain only around 7 percentage points of that. … The vast majority of the decline was due to consumers choosing of their own volition to avoid commercial activity.

The authors conclude:

The COVID-19 crisis led to an enormous reduction in economic activity. We estimate that the vast majority of this drop is due to individuals’ voluntary decisions to disengage from commerce rather than government-imposed restrictions on activity.

It is not clear how these conclusions fit into the current neglect of social distanciation rules and the resurgence of infections in many states where the lockdowns were ended, but they still suggest that an epidemic will, to a certain degree, be attenuated by the private means used by individuals to protect themselves.

In an older paper, Tomas Philippon, also of the University of Chicago, reached a similar conclusion (“Economic Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases,” in A.J. Culyer and J.P. Newhouse, Editors, Handbook of Health Economics, Vol. 1 [Elsevier Science B.V., 2000]):

Incentives for prevention make epidemics self-limiting, because the prevalence of a disease raises the incentives for preventive behavior. … The economic approach yields the insight that public intervention often provides less benefit than predicted by epidemiology, because private incentives counteract its effects.

We may add that, in the case of Covid-19, government intervention often generated perverse incentives. For example, public health agencies long claimed that wearing masks was useless for the general public. We may hypothesize that this detrimental advice was motivated by the shortage of masks (and other personal protective equipment) created by governments’ own price-controls and their efforts to commandeer the consequently insufficient quantity supplied. (On these shortages, I have written a number of posts starting with one on March 6, “Don’t Confuse Shortage and Smurfage.”)

 

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Closing or Reopening the Economy

That the expressions “closing the economy” or “reopening the economy” are widely and unthinkingly used suggests a deep problem: the state—governments at all level—has become so incredibly powerful that it can open or close large parts the complex and multifaceted network of exchanges between millions of individuals. It’s like if the government were a store owner and we were its store employees.

As I pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, even the Wall Street Journal writes unblinkingly that “countries,” by which it means national governments, can “reopen their societies.” If the state is so powerful as to open and close “its” society, perhaps it’s time for society to close its government—or, certainly, big chunks of it?

This language acknowledging Leviathan- or Hydra-like power of the state should worry even those who think that there was some justification for government measures to combat an epidemic such as Covid-19.

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Fontana on Emergency COVID Measures

One day, hopefully, we’ll calmly reason about what our experiences with COVID-19 have brought us. Or maybe not: history’s lessons are sometimes very difficult to learn.

Biancamaria Fontana has a learned and insightful piece on the blog of the Centre Walras Pareto at the University of Lausanne. Fontana, an accomplished historian of ideas, writes on the French Decree of 1793 known as “loi des suspects” which she describes as a “forerunner of the contemporary Patriot Acts”.

She focuses on Merlin de Douai and Cambacérès, two French jurists who had the distinction of working to shape the Revolutionary Tribunal. They were moderate, and yet collaborated with the Jacobins, including in preparing the legal framework of the Terror regime. Was that only a matter of opportunism?

For them the Revolution meant that France should become not a playground for the display of civic virtues, but “the reign of justice”; it must be framed by constitutional rules and governed by well-conceived, just laws, efficiently applied by a well-oiled institutional machine. After Thermidor, when the worst of the Terror phase was over, this is the objective they continued to pursue, as magistrates, ministers, directors or consuls, donning whatever official garments the subsequent regimes would offer them. The regimes would pass, but the solid edifice of codes, rules, procedures and offices they had almost surreptitiously built would remain.’

This technocratic wishful thinking has relevance when it comes to emergency acts.

Writes Fontana:

Emergency legislation is generally the response to a situation of fear and confusion. It is introduced to address some impending threat, but also (and above all) to convince the public that something radical is done to protect them and to secure their acquiescence. The grounds for fear can be real enough, though they are often magnified by propaganda and popular imagination. There were actually hostile agents and counter-revolutionary conspiracies in France in 1793, as there are secret terrorist cells around the world today. The bellicose language adopted by some politicians in response to the pandemics (fighting an invisible enemy, we are at war, together we can win etc.) seemed better suited to an invasion from outer space than to a health crisis, but the risks for the population did exist. But precisely because they are a response to panic, emergency measures must be unaffected by it. They should be clearly formulated (possibly worked out in advance), specific, limited in time and especially placed under transparent political responsibility; otherwise, they might easily become the instruments of arbitrary power, rather than the means to secure collective safety.

What we have seen lately is basically the opposite: measures conceived under pressure, suited to one particular case, defended in the name of pragmatism and, as such, a sure conduit to decreased political accountability. Fontana’s point is that the law should be credible and clear and predictable in its effects, even though it is dealing with an emergency situation.

We’re reaching a point, as the pandemic progresses, in which we should try to coolly assess what happened. Too often, those who fear government intrusions in their life end up denying that a real danger was ever there. Not only does that undermine the credibility of their cause, but is it also a serious intellectual mistake: the fact that a danger exists, that a genuine emergency is happening, cannot mean that anything could be done. Rules and individual rights are not necessarily to be done away with just because we are confronting a serious risk. If they were, the free society would be a very poor thing indeed.

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