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Agreeing and Disagreeing With Tyler Cowen on Covid-19

In my latest essay for AIER I applaud one observation that Tyler Cowen has about the Covid-19 situation, but express my disagreement with another of his observations. A slice:

What Tyler misses is that those of us who point out that Covid is overwhelmingly a threat only to the old and infirm are thereby identifying an important reason for rejecting the belief that Covid is cataclysmic.

To contend that Covid isn’t cataclysmic is not to contend, or even to imply, that Covid’s dangers aren’t real. They are real, but almost exclusively for old and ailing people. And because of this fact, Tyler is wrong to argue that failure to respond as radically and as indiscriminately as most governments have done would have dangerously discredited governments in the eyes of their citizens. Surely the most credible – surely the “optimal” – response by government is one that is proportionate to the danger posed. And such proportionality requires taking into account relevant realities such as large age-group differences in mortality rates.

But by failing to take account of Covid’s differential impact on people according to their age, governments have compromised their credibility. By falsely treating everyone from kindergartners through college students and even middle-aged folks in normal health as if they all are as imperiled by Covid as are residents of nursing homes, governments signal a disregard for relevant facts. They reveal that they’ll seize upon any crisis, inflate it opportunistically, and use it as an excuse to grab more power regardless of the underlying realities.

In short, contrary to building up its citizens’ trust in the ability and willingness of government to respond effectively to crises, each government that ignored or discounted the importance of the reality that Covid is overwhelmingly a danger to the elderly has given its citizens very good reason to distrust it to respond effectively to future crises.


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