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Sledgehammered or Stampeded: Either Fate is Horrific

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In my latest column for AIER, I explain why the public’s reaction to the covid lockdowns have crushed my optimism, leaving in its place only pessmism [2]. A slice:

The image that keeps coming into my head is of a sledgehammer. With brute force, a blunt and heavy instrument was swung down on society by the state. Sledgehammers crush. They demolish. That’s their only function. They do not build. And for as long as the dreadful weight of this particular sledgehammer – the massive mallet that is the COVID-19 lockdown – continues to press down on the rubble that it caused, there is very little opportunity for the human creativity and work effort unleashed by markets to bring about the kind of improvements that Rosling documents.

Will humanity recover? Will we – when the sledgehammer is lifted – rise, dust ourselves off, and climb back on to the happy track that we were on before March 2020? Of course it’s possible. But there’s now a novel reality that makes a renewed continuation of pre-COVID progress much less likely: the sledgehammer itself.

When this sledgehammer is lifted off of us, it won’t be lifted for long. We now know that this awful hammer is there, looming overhead. We have good reason to worry that government officials are likely to smash it down upon us when another communicable pathogen emerges and makes news – as such a pathogen inevitably will, for viral pathogens have been part of human existence from the start. How will entrepreneurship and investment be changed by this ever-present threat of a smashing sledgehammer? The creation, funding, and operation of venues in which individuals come into close physical contact with each other – either for recreation or for work – will surely be much less attractive.

More generally, the newly demonstrated willingness of state officials to destroy, with just a few executive diktats, hundreds of billions of dollars of capital value cannot but push some entrepreneurs and investors into inactivity. Why build, or build grandly, when some pompous governor or mayor – someone whose only ‘skill’ and most intense itch is to exercise power over fellow human beings – can, with a mere signature, smash down a sledgehammer and turn to mush the fruits of years of hard work and sacrifice?

And how will those in power – and those who seek power – be affected by the display by so many people of a sheepish willingness to be ordered by the state into house arrest? Did prime ministers, governors, and mayors know in mid-March just how easy it would be for them to herd millions of the rest of us away from the activities that we human beings have for generations enjoyed? Were these officials aware of their power to convince so many people under their command that each individual poses a poisonous threat to every other individual?

To prosper, we human beings must cooperate in production – Adam Smith called it the division of labor – and trade extensively. Most of these activities require face-to-face contact among individuals who see each other as partners in cooperation and exchange rather than as threatening carriers of death. And to enjoy what we produce also requires face-to-face contact, for we are a social species.

In possession of dictatorial power unknown just a few months ago, government officials – a group undeserving of much trust even in the best of times [3] – will not shy away from wielding their newly discovered powers. The results will be ugly.

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Over at EconLog today, my GMU Econ colleague Bryan Caplan makes a related point – one refreshingly more analytical and insightful than my own [4]. Here’s Bryan’s conclusion:

Yes, perhaps I’m mistaken about one or two of these crises.  What clear, though, is that society’s method of certifying and addressing crises is deeply defective – and that’s highly unlikely to change [5].  While I’ve got to live with that, I get a small sense of comfort from staying aloof from the madness.  Staying aloof, and quietly thinking, “You will not stampede me.”

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