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A Comment on One of Tyler Cowen’s Claims at EconTalk

My dear friend, co-founder of Cafe Hayek, and former colleague Russ Roberts is (as many of you know) founder and host of the remarkable podcast “EconTalk.” Russ’s latest guest is my esteemed colleague Tyler Cowen. The topic is Covid-19 and the response to Covid. I paste below (with minor modifications) a comment that I left in the ‘comments’ section at the EconTalk site … for what it’s worth.

While Tyler is a long-time colleague for whom I have great respect, I’m perplexed by much of what he says in this discussion with Russ. Some of what perplexes me has been mentioned by earlier commenters. But what is to me the single most perplexing of Tyler’s remarks has, I think, as yet gone unmentioned. Specifically, it’s Tyler’s claim that what he calls governments’ “very vigorous response” to Covid – including the early lockdowns – were justified in order “to maintain your societal coherence.”

To lock people down, to mandate masks, to close schools, to restrict travel, and to stir up fear of Covid that is far out of proportion to the disease’s actual dangers is to shred the warp and woof of societal cohesion. Short of an actual, bazookas-blasting civil war, I can think of nothing that can have frayed and punctured societal cohesion more than the Covid responses – both the coercion and the fear-mongering – championed by most governments and pundits.

Many children are still kept from their classmates and often even from their neighborhood playmates. Families and friends were discouraged from joining together to celebrate holidays and special, even solemn, occasions. Fans were prevented from gathering together live at sporting events. (Fans were replaced by freakish cardboard cutouts.) Many sporting events themselves were canceled. In my hometown of New Orleans, Mardi Gras – a glorious, if gaudy, mass party – was in 2021 effectively canceled.

Dining out ground to a halt. It remains today at far from full capacity in many places. Unlike Tyler, I very much enjoy sitting in crowded bars and talking with bartenders and patrons. Yet such activity, at least in Virginia and DC, remains impossible.

Sitting about a month ago at a table placed beside what was once a bar within a northern Virginia restaurant, I was reprimanded by the restaurant manager for turning around and leaning in for too long to chat without a mask with a couple seated more than six feet behind me. Some societal cohesion this.

Movie theaters, concert venues, gyms, coffee shops, bookstores, retail shops and shopping malls, churches, public parks, amusement parks, beaches – places where strangers congregate for enjoyment, relaxation, recreation, worship, and often for the mere pleasure of being among others – were shut down completely for a time, and might be shut down again. Many are still in at least partial shut-down. Some will never reopen.

The Canadian government literally recommended that people stop having sex with each other and instead to masturbate. And for those who simply cannot do without the actual intimacy of partners in the flesh, the recommendation was at least to wear a mask during intimacy. What kind of deranged and anti-social freak offers such recommendations?

Very many people now regard strangers as poisonous monsters from whom unnatural distance must be kept. Passers-by steer clear of each other as people have long steered clear of mangy stray dogs. Masks hide smiles and muffle voices. We humans who communicate so much and so deftly with facial expressions are now denied this vital form of communication.

Shaking hands, back-slapping, and hugging are much-reduced.

My campus, George Mason University, remains largely deserted. Student unions and nearby restaurants that cater to young people are either quiet as mausoleums or shuttered.

Classes are conducted by Zoom. I teach – “teach” – by Zoom (or, rather, its equivalent called “Blackboard”).

People Zoom in to work. From home. Wearing pajamas.

Covid restrictions and Covid fear-mongering keep us dangerously apart. We’re not “all in this together” as much as we are altogether being driven apart from each other by unwarranted fear and by steely coercive state powers forged in the flames of this fear.

Elderly people are forcibly kept apart from their loved ones. One of my and Tyler’s mutual friends is unable to visit her dying mother in Europe.

The hand of economic nationalists to cut trade ties with foreign countries has been greatly strengthened by fears of Covid, thus threatening globalization and the peace and prosperity that it brings.
Tyler objects to the practice of emphasizing the fact that Covid overwhelmingly kills very old people and poses practically no risk to the young. He doesn’t deny this fact; he instead says that it’s irrelevant.

Yet this fact is not at all irrelevant. It’s highly relevant.

First, more widespread recognition of this fact would help to better calibrate the public’s fear of Covid to this disease’s actual risks. (How is this outcome not desirable?) Second, such recognition would have prevented our indiscriminate widespread fear of each other. Efforts would have been focused on reducing risks to the elderly and vulnerable rather than on misleadingly frightening everyone to regard everyone else as vermin to be avoided rather than as humans whose company and cooperation enrich our lives.

The “vigorous” Covid response that Tyler applauds did not create societal cohesion. It sparked and is still fueling societal disintegration. The results will not be happy.


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