The COVID-19 emergency did not justify lockdowns
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May 7, 2021 (AIER) — A commonplace justification for the lockdowns and other COVID-19 restrictions imposed over the past 15 months is this: SARS-CoV-2 poses a threat to humanity that differs categorically from any of the many threats that we routinely encounter. Confronting a categorically unique monster is said to excuse government officials from the obligation of taking the time required to weigh carefully the likely costs of alternative responses against these responses’ likely benefits.
Act resolutely! Act boldly! Act quickly! We’re told that the sudden and surprising arrival of a serious new threat to humanity denies to us the luxury of taking measured steps the costs and benefits of which have been carefully considered and debated.
I know from having now fought long in the COVID-policy trenches that many people find this argument for lockdowns to be compelling. Yet even apart from the many empirical problems that plague the case for lockdowns, this argument does not withstand logical scrutiny.
Potential perils all around
Even if we grant, contrary to fact, that COVID-19 poses to humankind a threat that’s categorically unique, it does not follow that lockdowns are justified or even excusable. The reason is that months-long global lockdowns are themselves, and in fact, categorically unique events fraught with serious perils.
It is true that in March 2020 we had little knowledge of the extent to which humanity would be ravaged by COVID. But we also had little knowledge of the extent to which humanity would be ravaged by lockdowns imposed to fight COVID. Because there was never any reason to doubt that lockdowns would have severe economic and non-economic costs – and because lockdowns arrived on the scene just as suddenly and just as surprisingly, and with just as much novelty, as did the coronavirus – the same “logic” that appears to justify an embrace of the case for lockdowns also justifies an embrace of the case against lockdowns.
In short, humanity in early 2020 was confronted with two novel dangers. Yet only one of these dangers – that lurking in the novel coronavirus – was recognized as such. It and only it was taken to be an excuse for potential overreaction. It and only it was taken to justify acting-now-and-asking-questions-only-later. The other of these dangers – that lurking in the novel lockdowns – was largely ignored or severely discounted.
One of the hallmarks of sound science is appropriate classification of phenomena. Another is logical coherence of analyses. It’s sensible that novel dangers that are reasonably believed to pose severe risks to human well-being justify us, in our encounters with such dangers, to err on the side of caution. But this sensible advice applies to all such novel dangers. And so if we encounter such a danger X at 9:00am and then encounter a second such danger Y at 9:15am, we would behave quite irrationally if we ignore or discount danger Y simply because we encountered danger Y after we encountered danger X.
Two surprising and sudden dangers
In early 2020 humanity first encountered the dangerous coronavirus. Almost immediately thereafter we encountered the dangerous lockdowns. The fact that the lockdowns were proposed as a ‘solution’ to the coronavirus does nothing to protect them from the need of scrutiny. History, after all, is saturated with solutions that turn out to be worse than the problems they were meant to solve.
Yet the dangers of novel lockdowns were ignored or hand-waved away by all but a puny puddle of people. “We’re up against an unknown and monstrous enemy in this coronavirus,” screamed the vast ocean of people who screamed for novel lockdowns. “Until the risk of COVID is brought way, way down, we can’t afford the luxury of listening to those who warn of the dangers of lockdowns!”
As a matter of logic, however, an identical panic-stricken reaction to lockdowns would have been equally appropriate – or, as the case might be, equally inappropriate. “We’re up against an unknown and monstrous enemy in these lockdowns,” many people could have screamed. “Until the risk of lockdowns is known to be very, very low, we can’t afford the luxury of listening to those who warn of the dangers of COVID!”
In reality, each danger, and each proposal for reducing the danger, should be considered with appropriate rationality and never in a panic. That tamping down panic is often difficult in practice doesn’t make this advice any less warranted. No one doubts that the greater, the more novel, and the more immediate the danger, the greater is the justification for acting to avert the danger with vigor and speed. But if one of the speedily proposed means for averting the danger is itself novel and plausibly poses dangers as great as – even if not as immediate as – those posed by the danger itself, this proposed means ought to be resisted until and unless a careful calculation provides sound reason to believe that use of this means is likely to generate benefits greater than costs.
Yet there was no such careful calculation for the lockdowns imposed in haste to combat Covid-19. Lockdowns were simply assumed not only to be effective at significantly slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but also to impose only costs that are acceptable. Regrettably, given the novelty of the lockdowns, and the enormous magnitude of their likely downsides, this bizarrely sanguine attitude toward lockdowns was – and remains – wholly unjustified. And the unjustness of this reaction is further highlighted by the fact that, in a free society, the burden of proof is on those who would restrict freedom and not on those who resist such restrictions.
While I believe that the evidence is now decisive that lockdowns were a huge mistake, my point here is not, strictly speaking, anti-lockdown. My point here, instead, is pro-science and good sense: Whatever the novelty and dangers of COVID-19, the novelty and dangers of COVID-19 lockdowns are at least arguably of the same magnitude. The dismissal of the unknown possible horrors of lockdowns in order to focus attention exclusively on the unknown possible horrors of SARS-CoV-2 is as unjustified by science as it is unpardonable as policy.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and 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.
Published with permission from the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER).