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Pandemics and Science(s)

In my most-recent column for AIER I warn against the supposition that epidemiology and other natural sciences alone supply all the guidance necessary for how individuals and governments should respond to pandemics. A slice:

Complicating matters further are these two additional facts: First, society is comprised of millions upon millions of individuals and families; second, each individual’s preferences are uniquely his or her own. My preferences for safety and health almost certainly differ in their details from yours, and the preferences of each of us differ from those of Dr. Anthony Fauci, from Pres. Donald Trump, and from any television news anchor or writer for The Week. And because my preferences are best for me while yours are best for you, and because at least some of my preferences likely conflict with some of yours, there is no one collective set of preferences from which a scientifically discoverable “best” course of action can be chosen.

This latter conclusion, take note, is proven by science. Several versions of this proof exist, but the most famous and firmly established is Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. An implication of this Theorem is that, because different individuals have different preferences, there is simply no uniquely ‘best’ government response to COVID-19. And because that which doesn’t exist can’t be discovered, even the finest scientists working with unlimited budgets could not discover the ‘best’ response.

(Note that this inability to discover “the” best response differs from – yet is made all the more indisputable by – the fact that individuals’ preferences change over time and that individuals learn. When individuals learn they frequently change their actions in ways that scientists who model their behavior find impossible to predict.)

The realities emphasized above do not mean that there is no legitimate role for government in this calamity. But they do mean, at the very least, that disputes over what are the best policy responses are possible – indeed, healthy – among men and women of intelligence and good will. Science does not reveal that any one particular response is superior to any of many other possible responses.

Yet I believe that the realities emphasized above mean also that skepticism of proposed responses should intensify the more heavily the proposals rely on top-down, one-size-forced-upon-all commands and controls. Economics, after all, itself is a science. And perhaps its most important discovery is that the amount of knowledge that is productively put to use in society decreases as more and more decision-making responsibility is taken from individuals on the ground and given to officials occupying government offices.


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