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The Individualized Option

Here’s the second in what will now be a three-part series on Covid and Coase, written for AIER, by Lyle Albaugh and me. A slice:

Consider an admittedly extreme possibility, but one that would provide to any individual who chooses it complete protection: wearing a hazmat suit when venturing into the company of other people. The wearer would be practically guaranteed never to become infected with the coronavirus.

Sounds impractical, extreme, and crazy, right? But is this option more impractical than bringing much of society to a screeching stop for an indefinite time? Is this option more extreme than granting to governments virtually unlimited police-state powers to suppress ordinary human engagements?

Is obliging the most fearful and susceptible among us to take their own precautions, including (if they wish) wearing a hazmat suit, crazier than preventing adults from going to work, children from going to school, and everyone from socializing in familiar ways?

Would a world in which some people stroll the streets wearing hazmat suits be more lunatic than a world in which Times Square is empty, sporting events are played in vacant arenas, kindergartners attend school online, and some governments recommend the wearing of masks during sex?

What about cost? IndustrialSafety.com sells hazmat suits for $200. Thus, supplying every man, woman, and child in America with a hazmat suit would cost just under $70 billion. Heck, let’s supply each American with two such suits, in case one breaks. $140 billion. This amount is less than ten percent of what the U.S. government alone directly spent through July in response to covid. And this $140 billion shrinks further into insignificance when we add in the costs of lost economic output, of lost social engagement, and of the lives of cancer patients and others lost because of the lockdowns.

Our point is not to recommend that everyone go to the extreme of donning a hazmat suit. It is instead to explain that government-orchestrated restrictions on social interaction are not the only or even the least costly means available for protecting people from the coronavirus. Each of us can protect ourselves individually, and at a cost that’s affordable.

The individualized option allows each individual to adjust his or her level of protection according to his or her personal risk preferences. People who are extremely averse to risk might choose to actually wear hazmat suits. Most people, however, would choose lesser degrees of protection – for example, wearing N95 masks and latex gloves, or voluntarily sheltering in place. People less risk-averse would choose lesser degrees of protection. Some individuals – those who judge the risk of being harmed by covid to be negligible – would be free to take no precautions at all.