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The Relevant Constraint

James Buchanan never tired of noting the influence on his own thinking of Knut Wicksell’s scolding of economists, in the late 19th century, for writing as if they are advising a benevolent despot. This Wicksellian insight is the key ingredient in the scholarship that won for Buchanan a Nobel Prize.

I, too, take this insight seriously. Yet it is because of the reality to which this insight points that I cannot muster up much practical interest in any of today’s discussions of many of the creative proposals for minimizing the health (and economic) consequences of COVID-19. Should “we” practice variolation as a means of minimizing the costs of the coronavirus? – is an example of an intellectually interesting question now being discussed.

Discussants include people (seriously) far smarter and better informed than me – people such as my GMU colleagues Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson. Yet when I read such discussions I soon become depressed by the reality that implementation of such policies either must be done by governments, or at least be done with the permission of governments – governments that, in recent weeks, have greatly further expanded their powers and eagerness to intrude into people’s private affairs.

The typical politician, being an adept peddler of economic quackery, is unlikely to be an apolitical applier of sound medical and public-health science. Politicians have a sorry track record of taking scientific economics seriously as applied to public policy. Why should we believe that they are more likely to take scientific medicine more seriously as applied to public policy?

Insofar as scientifically credible proposals for dealing with COVID-19 involve collective action – and all seem to do so to some degree – what reason is there to think that any of these proposals will meet with the approval of politicians? What reason is there to believe that politicians can be trusted to carry them out or, even, not to interfere in ways that render their practice futile? Answer: none, unless it be by pure chance.

The typical politician, when he or she isn’t howling for higher tariffs to create jobs and “make America great again” or arranging for tens of millions of (future) taxpayer dollars to be given to the Kennedy Center as a means of fighting COVID-19, is screaming for minimum-wage hikes as a means to enrich the poor or proposing to make college affordable by having government forgive all student-loan debt and pump more taxpayer money into higher education. The typical politician, in short, is not someone for a serious person to take seriously, except as a threat to sensible action.

Being ‘governed’ chiefly by individuals who, if they aren’t merely confused by their own quackery, are rendered shameless by their lust for power, makes me unable to see much of a practical point in the serious discussions as are now underway about how to best deal with COVID-19.

You might respond that we have no good alternative – to which I say: Well, that’s a genuine tragedy. Truly it is. But reality isn’t optional. And in reality government is not – and will not become – wise, apolitical, or benevolent.


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