My latest column for AIER is inspired by what I believe to the completely meaningless, although frequently encountered, comparisons of the number of Covid-19 deaths to the number of deaths caused by the 9/11 terrorists, or by the likes of hypothetical X-number of jumbo-jet crashes or World War I battles. A slice:

Another, more serious problem with comparing the number of Covid deaths to the likes of 9/11 fatalities or to jumbo-jet crashes is that Covid, unlike these other sources of death, kills selectively and more predictably. Covid reserves its dangers overwhelmingly for the very elderly. This truth is not diminished by being ignored or discounted by those who insist on dramatizing the threat of Covid.

Consider three different novel diseases – A, B, and C – each of which results in a total of 500,000 deaths chalked up to it. But – disease A kills only people ages 2 through 50; disease B indiscriminately kills people of all ages; and disease C kills only people ages 80 and older.

No reasonable person would be indifferent between these diseases. While each disease (obviously) is unfortunate, disease B is clearly worse than is disease C, and disease A is clearly worse than is disease B – making, of course, disease A worse than disease C. Yet each of these diseases will be said to kill 168 times the number of people killed by the 9/11 terrorists. Each of these diseases will be said to kill as many people who would die were 1,071 packed jumbo jets to fall from the sky.

Such comparisons mask important differences among these diseases. Although these diseases all kill the same number of people, they are not all equally dreadful.

One reason disease C is the least dreadful of the three is that it obliterates fewer life years than are obliterated by diseases A and B. Recent experience tells me that some people now deny the significance of this fact. But I deny that these deniers believe their denials.

If these denials were sincere, those who issue them would react with the same degree of extreme shock and sympathy upon learning of the death of an 84-year-old colleague as upon learning of the death of another colleague’s teenage child. Yet any person who so reacts would rightly be regarded, at best, as very strange and, more realistically, as emotionally defective. Mature human beings understand that death is inevitable. We understand also that every person’s chance of dying rises with age and that, even in our modern world, living into one’s 90s remains a relatively rare blessing.

There’s a second, related reason why disease C is less dreadful than are diseases A and B. Compared to those who are killed by disease A or B, those whose deaths are attributed to disease C are more likely to have had, or were more likely to contract in short order, other ailments that would have killed them if disease C hadn’t apparently done the job first. In other words, “being killed by disease C” has a meaning more ambiguous than “being killed by disease A.” Compared to the number of people whose deaths are attributed to disease C, many fewer persons killed by disease A were likely to soon be killed by some other cause – or to have death brought on by some other cause but mistakenly attributed to disease A.

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Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Editor:

Commenting on the “Buy American” government procurement order to be signed by President Biden, an administration official boasts that “[w]e remain very committed to working with partners and allies to modernize international trade rules to make sure that we can use our taxpayer dollars to stir investments in our own countries and strengthen supply chains” (“Biden to Sign Buy American Order for Government Procurement, Jan. 25).”

Evincing ignorance of the economics of trade that’s downright Trumpian, the new administration seems unaware that “Buy American” orders might well – I believe likely will – reduce investment in America.

First, by preventing government from purchasing inputs at the lowest available prices, “Buy American” orders force taxpayers to pay more for government services. The practical result is a current increase in taxes or in government borrowing, either of which reduces the amount of money remaining in the private sector to be invested.

Second, by shielding favored American suppliers from foreign competition, “Buy American” orders dampen these suppliers’ incentives to innovate and remain cutting-edge. Even if these suppliers invest more to expand their production capacities, they will invest less to enhance their production efficiency and to fund R&D – consequences that will weaken, not strengthen, supply chains.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

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Victoria Hewson challenges the claim, made by (among others) her Institute of Economic Affairs colleague Christopher Snowdon, that lockdown skeptics have been destructive. A slice:

I also take issue with the substance of the position that Snowdon, Haimes and other so-called “lockdown centrists”, support: broadly, the current lockdown being maintained until enough people have been vaccinated, “in order to prevent tens of thousands of people dying this winter from [Covid-19]”. While I too went along with the first lockdown, in March last year, carried along by arguments about externalities and the harm principle, as well as general fear and uncertainty, I have since reconsidered my position. In moral terms, I struggle to conceptualise the harm principle as justifying the exercise of state power to confine healthy people in order to prevent a theoretical risk of harm to others. Even applying an economic cost/benefit analysis, if one includes all of the costs to individual welfare and utility, such as the loss of education (which will be most keenly felt by those least able to bear it) as well as GDP losses, it seems inconceivable to me that lockdowns will produce net benefits.

Also responding to Christopher Snowdon is Nigel Alphonso. Two slices (emphasis added):

To be fair to Snowdon, he does not deny or deprecate the extreme privations of lockdown and never has. Indeed, he has hitherto been one of the most articulate chroniclers of the lockdown devastation. But it illustrates a wider point that when the nanny state reached the apotheosis of its evolution and literally decided to lock us up not for anything we had done but for things that we might do (i.e., infect and potentially kill another person – infinitesimally small a risk as that is) the defenders of freedom went missing – instead focusing their considerable intellectual heft on attacking the unholy trinity of “false positives”, “casedemics” and Covid denialism.

…..

Unlike some of our adversaries, we on the anti-lockdown side (and I use that phrase deliberately rather than ‘lockdown sceptic’) must be ruthlessly honest about our intentions. We do not believe that an alternative strategy to lockdown would have cost more lives but intellectual and moral honesty should force us to admit that even if that sad eventuality transpired, it would have been preferable to the current malaise. As we survey a devastated economy, a dislocated society, an unfair allocation of cost to the most disadvantaged and economically fragile, the erosion of human rights and the brutal imposition of state controls with scant democratic accountability – we ask ourselves: “Is this what our country has become? Is this who we are?”

Inspired explicitly by Milton Friedman (and, it seems, implicitly by Robert Higgs), Angus McIntosh rightly worries about the legacy of the Covid-19 lockdowns. Two slices:

But potentially even more damaging for our long-term future are the lasting shifts in attitudes which the virus may leave behind.

These will be many and complex, but there are three which are particularly likely:

  1. Permanently lowered public tolerance for life’s normal risks and challenges.
  2. Increased popular willingness to sacrifice freedoms in pursuit of safety.
  3. Greater tendency for authorities of all kinds to exploit the above.

The first two of these malign legacies represent acceleration of existing trends, rather than completely new phenomena. But the third is undergoing more of a revolution.

…..

If you think measures like these are unthinkable in a Western democracy, then ask yourself whether you would have believed a year ago that we’d be willing to give up our right to leave our homes without a reasonable excuse to manage a disease that >99% of those it infects recover from.

Through GoFundMe, I will help support this heroic woman who is resisting the tyranny of lockdowns.

Here are some scenes, courtesy of the New York Times, of lockdown protests in the Netherlands.

The researchers found no significant difference in the number of infections before and after the lockdown was intensified, compared to the other group of four. Secondly, the number of infections began to go down a week or more before the lockdown could have been expected to have any effect. Thirdly, the number of infections also began to go down in the four municipalities where no change was enforced.

John Cochrane riffs productively on Jacob Grier’s recent essay “Libertarians in a Pandemic.”

I’m honored that AIER has turned my recent essay, “On Living In Harmony With Nature,” into this ten-minute-long video narrated by Kate Wand:

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Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on January 25, 2021

in Hubris and humility

… is from page 51 of the 1997 Johns Hopkins University Press edition of H.L. Mencken’s brilliant 1956 collection, Minority Report:

In the field of practical morals popular judgments are often sounder than those of the self-appointed experts. These experts seldom show any talent for the art and mystery they undertake to profess; on the contrary, nine-tenths of them are obvious quacks. They are responsible for all the idiotic moral reforms and innovations that come and go, afflicting decent people.

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Hear, hear!

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Amelia Janaskie, Jenin Younes, and Taleed Brown show us some faces of lockdowns.

David Cook offers a thorough and intelligent explanation of Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) and of why public-health-officials’ failure to properly account for these leads to undesirable outcomes. A slice:

David Miles and his colleagues have done an extensive analysis of the economic value of lockdown using QALYs. In this they clearly demonstrate that even in the most extreme modelling scenarios, where the number of COVID-19 deaths avoided is at its maximum, based on the normal NICE criteria lockdown is not cost effective: if lockdown had been nivolumab then it would have been rejected as a treatment. The reason for this is, in part, due to the age of those who benefit limiting the number of QALYs generated. This is an excellent piece of analysis and so I’m not going to reiterate it here. Instead, I’m going to park the costs and focus on thinking about the broader impacts of lockdowns purely from a quality of life perspective.

Unlike the predicted benefits of lockdown on QALYs, the reduction in QALYs to the population under lockdown are here and now, real and not computer simulated, and, if we so desired, to an extent measurable. This is for the simple reason that lockdown requires societal changes to be effective and these changes have negative consequences. To steal some drug terminology; there is no margin between the beneficial effects and the negative (side) effects; there is no safe dose of lockdown.

Because of the very nature of lockdown, everyone’s quality of life will be reduced to some extent due to the loss of normal social activities. The loss of these things on an individual level is minimal compared to the impact of a severe case of COVID-19, and so they only produce a more modest reduction in the quality of life. The problem is that a lot of people suffer this reduction and so those small losses soon add up a large number of QALYs.

For those of you who trust government officials with discretionary power to ‘manage’ a pandemic ‘scientifically,’ Liz Wolfe has some information that you might wish to consider.

Philippe Lemoine, a PhD student in philosophy at Cornell, offers a Twitter thread in which he reasonably argues that lockdowns have, at best, only a limited impact in reducing the risk of dying from Covid-19.

Peter Hitchens continues to write wisely about Covid and lockdown tyranny. A slice:

There is also a strange drop in influenza this year. Amazingly, lockdown enthusiasts are crediting this to the closure of our society. But if strangling almost all normal life is so effective against flu, why is it not working against Covid?

Or is it perhaps that flu is still in our midst, but under a different name? I believe figures are also showing a reduction in excess deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Why is that?

At the beginning of this, on March 18, the distinguished professor of medical microbiology, Sucharit Bhakdi, issued a warning.

His credentials are impressive. An infectious medicine specialist, he is one of the most highly cited medical research scientists in Germany. He is a former head of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, one of Germany’s most distinguished seats of learning. He is also a prophet.

He said that older people had the right to make efforts to stay fit, active, busy and healthy. But he warned that the shutdown of society would condemn them to early death by preventing this.

Janet Daley eloquently explores the differences separating the desire for freedom and the demand for security. Two slices:

Of course, in the present context, the notion of risk is quite immediate and absolute. Liberty is no use to you if you are dead, and few people would claim that you should have the right to put other people’s lives in jeopardy. And we are not, however much political rhetoric has been expended, in anything like a war with a sentient enemy. By shutting down so many of the most fundamental personal freedoms we are going further than most countries would ever have done in wartime but we are not handing any sort of moral victory to the enemy – because there is no enemy. This is not an ideological battle with an alien force. It is an argument we must have with ourselves.

I don’t propose to engage yet again in the dispute over the present lockdown restrictions – whether they are effective and how urgent it is to lift them. What interests me is how public opinion has responded to these measures. Do people want to be free? Or do they want to be, above all else, safe? Both, paradoxically, but when it comes to an unavoidable choice which way do they go? It isn’t the imposition of these measures that needs examination here but the willingness to comply with them: the positive eagerness to embrace such unprecedented repression to the point of demanding more of it.

…..

Perhaps the most important thing we have learned from this deranging time in our history is that fear remains such a strong human impetus that it can easily stampede all the principles that were assumed to underpin democracy. Does this make it more likely that governments will be prepared to close down all social interaction again, in response to future crises? Almost certainly, and maybe not just for disease epidemics – perhaps for crime waves, terror threats, rioting or mass unrest of any kind. After all, look how easy it was this time.

Using satire, Phil Magness accurately captures the misguided attitude of so many people today:

“There simply must be some collective action solution that stops covid. The ones we’ve tried haven’t worked, and I don’t know what a successful solution is. But dammit, we’re gonna keep trying until we find it!”

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Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on January 24, 2021

in Hubris and humility, Philosophy of Freedom

… is from page 249 of the late Hans Rosling’s deeply insightful 2018 book, Factfulness:

Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity.

Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.”

DBx: Indeed.

Unfortunately, in the world today, humility is more scarce than flying aardvarks, while arrogance is superabundant.

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Bonus Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on January 23, 2021

in Legal Issues, Philosophy of Freedom

… is from philosopher Doug Den Uyl’s excellent September 9th, 2019, essay, “A Stake in the Heart of Capitalism”:

However badly the state may often be at general impartiality, such impartiality towards all is nonetheless the government’s function. The capitalist, by contrast, is a private “person” pursuing private ends. To conflate or merge the two can only result in the obliteration of the private portion and thus of the essence of capitalism.

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Here’s yet another eloquent plea by MP Charles Walker for sanity amidst the Covid-19 madness. This short speech was delivered in the House of Commons on December 2, 2020. (HT Jack Salmon)

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