≡ Menu

A Future of Playing Whack-a-Mole with Risks

Here’s a letter to the Times (of London):


In “The political class have lost their taste for risk” (March 25), James Forsyth identifies a great danger unleashed by the public and political reaction to Covid-19: governments’ determination to pursue safety at all costs.

The most obvious problem with this policy is that, because safety isn’t the only ‘good’ that we humans value, governments pursuing such safetyism will force us to consume too much of it. They’ll impose on us an amount of safety paid for too dearly with foregone prosperity, education, pleasures of social interaction, and individual liberty. (If you fancy that no price is too high to pay for safety, ask yourself why you’ve never chosen to live 24/7/365  in a hazmat suit. The constant wearing of such a suit, after all, would better protect you against viruses and bacteria.)

But another, less obvious, and deeper problem plagues the pursuit of safety at all costs: doing so is very unsafe. Reducing the risk of one kind of harm unavoidably raises the risks of other kinds of harm. Even if, for example, locking populations down does reduce suffering from Covid, it increases the risk of suffering from mental illness, of undetected cancers and other non-Covid ailments, and of delays in treating injuries.

Testament to this reality comes today from New Zealand. While that country’s draconian response to the coronavirus might well have significantly reduced its Covid case counts – which are indeed very low – its lockdowns apparently have so damaged the health of New Zealanders that hospitals there are now experiencing unprecedented overcrowding.

This lesson is one that I fear should, but won’t, be learned any time soon.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030