More on the Precautionary Principle Devouring Itself

by Don Boudreaux on May 4, 2021

in Archived writings, Current Affairs, Reality Is Not Optional

In my latest column for AIER I extend the argument that I made in this letter – namely, that the novelty of Covid-19 does not justify the lockdowns. Two slices:

Even if we grant, contrary to fact, that Covid-19 poses to humankind a threat that’s categorically unique, it does not follow that lockdowns are justified or even excusable. The reason is that months-long global lockdowns are themselves, and in fact, categorically unique events fraught with serious perils.

It is true that in March 2020 we had little knowledge of the extent to which humanity would be ravaged by Covid. But we also had little knowledge of the extent to which humanity would be ravaged by lockdowns imposed to fight Covid. Because there was never any reason to doubt that lockdowns would have severe economic and non-economic costs – and because lockdowns arrived on the scene just as suddenly and just as surprisingly, and with just as much novelty, as did the coronavirus – the same ‘logic’ that appears to justify an embrace of the case forlockdowns also justifies an embrace of the case against lockdowns.

In short, humanity in early 2020 was confronted with two novel dangers. Yet only one of these dangers – that lurking in the novel coronavirus – was recognized as such. It and only it was taken to be an excuse for potential overreaction. It and only it was taken to justify acting-now-and-asking-questions-only-later. The other of these dangers – that lurking in the novel lockdowns – was largely ignored or severely discounted.


In reality, each danger, and each proposal for reducing the danger, should be considered with appropriate rationality and never in a panic. (That tamping down panic is often difficult in practice doesn’t make this advice any less warranted.) No one doubts that the greater, the more novel, and the more immediate the danger, the greater is the justification for acting to avert the danger with vigor and speed. But if one of the speedily proposed means for averting the danger is itself novel and plausibly poses dangers as great as – even if not as immediate as – those posed by the danger itself, this proposed means ought to be resisted until and unless a careful calculation provides sound reason to believe that use of this means is likely to generate benefits greater than costs.

Yet there was no such careful calculation for the lockdowns imposed in haste to combat Covid-19. Lockdowns were simply assumed not only to be effective at significantly slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but also to impose only costs that are acceptable. Regrettably, given the novelty of the lockdowns, and the enormous magnitude of their likely downsides, this bizarrely sanguine attitude toward lockdowns was – and remains – wholly unjustified. And the unjustness of this reaction is further highlighted by the fact that, in a free society, the burden of proof is on those who would restrict freedom and not on those who resist such restrictions.

While I believe that the evidence is now decisive that lockdowns were a huge mistake, my point here is not, strictly speaking, anti-lockdown. My point here, instead, is pro-science and good sense: Whatever the novelty and dangers of Covid-19, the novelty and dangers of Covid-19 lockdowns are at least arguably of the same magnitude. The dismissal of the unknown possible horrors of lockdowns in order to focus attention exclusively on the unknown possible horrors of SARS-CoV-2 is as unjustified by science as it is unpardonable as policy.


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