The Question Wasn’t Even Asked

by Don Boudreaux on March 8, 2021

in Current Affairs, Economics, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen

Here’s a letter to someone who pesters me with accusations that I’m a terrible economist because I (allegedly) ignore externalities:

Mr. W___:

Inspired by the twitter thread from Jeremy Horpedahl found at my post “Ad Hominem Is Not a Valid Argument,” you write again to accuse me of “ignor[ing] that the harm principle justifies government acting to stop innocent third parties being harmed by others.”

I plead innocent and stand by what I wrote to you in January. To it, I add here only one point.

I’ve yet to encounter from anyone who supports the likes of lockdowns and mask mandates even an attempt to explain when the consequences of Smith’s ordinary peaceful activities become so dangerous to Jones and Jackson that the state gains a warrant to coercively obstruct Smith’s activities. Every time one person is in the proximity of another person or persons, there’s a risk of third-party harm. Smith might pass on the flu to Jones; Jones might negligently trip Jackson, causing her to break a leg; Jackson might negligently kill Smith with his automobile.

So intoning “harm principle” or “externality” is wholly insufficient to justify harsh government-imposed restrictions on routine activities. At what point does the risk of harm from encountering a pathogen become so great as to call forth additional government interventions? I have serious doubts that a reasonable person acquainted with the facts would conclude that Covid-19 is so dangerous to the general public as to justify the likes of lockdowns, vaccine passports, and mask mandates.

But my point here is more fundamental. It’s that there appears to have been no asking of the question in the first place. As soon as Covid’s danger was revealed to be above normal, humanity began treating it as an existential threat the avoidance of which is worth any cost. This reaction is what I call Covid Derangement Syndrome.

By (mistakenly) accusing me of ignoring the harm principle, you insinuate that I fail to properly apply to reality lessons that I ought to have learned as an economist. For reasons explained above and in my previous letter, I again plead innocent to the charge. But further, I level a charge of my own – namely, those who do fail to properly apply economic lessons to reality are those who tolerate the grossly disproportionate government reaction to Covid. Pigouvian taxes, after all, are supposed to be proportional to the damage caused.

As you know, economic theory shows that it is harmful to impose excessively high Pigouvian taxes on factories whose emissions cause external costs. And so just as it would be wrong to accuse someone who complains of such a tax’s excessive height as being someone who ignores the harm principle, it is wrong of you to accuse me and other economists who oppose draconian Covid restrictions as ignoring the harm principle. Indeed, we opponents of lockdowns take the harm principle more seriously than you seem to do, for we recognize that greater harm can be caused by hysterical attempts to prevent harm.

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


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