The Age Profile of Covid’s Victims Is Indeed Relevant

by Don Boudreaux on April 26, 2021

in Archived writings, Current Affairs, Reality Is Not Optional, Risk and Safety

In my latest column for AIER I argue that it is bad public policy to ignore the fact that Covid disproportionately kills the elderly. A slice:

Importantly, to share this assessment is not to believe that some lives are more sacred and deserving of respect than other lives. It’s simply to recognize that all lives are finite, and that the older is someone, the closer is he or she to death. Therefore, in our world of scarce resources – in our world in which achieving more X means having less Z – it makes no sense for government to allocate whatever resources are legitimately at its disposal in ignorance of this widely shared recognition of life’s finiteness, and of the assessment of the meaning of this finiteness. (Note that this fact does not imply that government should coercively transfer resources from the old to the young simply because the young have more life remaining than do the old. In a liberal, free society, arbitrary government reallocation of privately owned resources is presumed to be illegitimate regardless of the owners’ age, health, sex, political affiliation, or whatever.)

Partly because I have little confidence that the state will act wisely and prudently, in my ideal world the state would play almost no role even in managing deadly pandemics. But the world is far from my ideal. The state is big, powerful, intrusive, and will without doubt play a role in managing pandemics. Given this given, libertarians such as myself are left to comment on options that, for us, are at best second-best. And so my plea is for the state to recognize the steep age-gradient of Covid’s victims and make policy accordingly.

Were the state to heed this plea, the result of course would be policies that differ from current policies which largely ignore Covid’s steep age gradient. In some ways, this difference in policies would be more favorable to the elderly. They would, for example, have priority over younger people for any vaccines the distribution of which is managed by government. But the biggest difference in policies is that they would be much less draconian, and they would reflect the Great Barrington Declaration’s advice to practice Focused Protection.

It is, I believe, deeply misguided to insist that the principle of government even-handedness requires that government ignore the age profile of a disease’s victims. It is misguided to demand – either on grounds of equity or by noting, correctly, that all lives are sacred – that the policy response to a disease that overwhelmingly kills old people must be just as vigorous and intense as would be the policy response to a disease that kills indiscriminately, or that kills overwhelmingly the young.

Such an indiscriminate policy response might be appropriate for a society that has escaped the bonds of scarcity or in which people can live forever. However, such an indiscriminate policy response to a highly discriminatory disease is utterly inappropriate for our society which remains firmly in the grip of both scarcity and mortality.


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