The Precautionary Principle Devours Itself

by Don Boudreaux on May 2, 2021

in Current Affairs, Myths and Fallacies, Seen and Unseen

Here’s a letter to a first-time correspondent:

Mr. P___:

“[P]ut off by” my “tiresome critique of governmental struggles to protect us from a very dangerous disease,” you write that

in the face of great uncertainty decision makers don’t have the luxury of fastidiously weighing the full consequences of their acts. A novel danger calls for decisive action which may retrospectively be found to be excessive, but only hindsight is 20-20.

I agree that hindsight is more accurate than foresight. For at least two reasons I disagree that this fact justifies the draconian responses over the past 15 months to Covid-19.

First, because we learned early on that SARS-CoV-2 poses a disproportionately high risk to the elderly – and very little risk to the young – there’s no good reason why this relevant information was ignored. Yet even after hindsight had given government officials knowledge that is both solid and pertinent, they refused to act on it. Indeed, when in early October a major Declaration (the Great Barrington) was released recommending action based on what was by then well-established facts about Covid, it was dismissed overwhelmingly with derision.

Second, like all precautionary-principle logic, your precautionary-principle logic devours itself. This ‘logic’ leads you to declare that the costs of draconian Covid restrictions be largely ignored in order that we be saved from the potentially gigantic costs of Covid. Yet I can use this same ‘logic’ to declare that the costs of Covid be largely ignored in order that we be saved from the potentially gigantic costs of lockdowns. A lockdown, after all, is a novel event that threatens to inflict unprecedented damage on humanity. Surely – the ‘logic’ goes – in the teeth of the sudden and unprecedented threat posed by lockdowns we should do all we can to protect humanity from this particular danger and not worry too terribly much about the consequent spread of the coronavirus.

In 2020 a severe novel coronavirus spawned a severe novel policy virus. The undoubted severity of the former does not justify ignoring the undoubted severity of the latter. But unfortunately, humanity not only focused almost exclusively on the danger of the former to the exclusion of the danger of the latter, we greatly exaggerated the danger of the former and greatly discounted the danger of the latter.

In summary, in early 2020 humanity was confronted with two novel dangers. I see no reason why we should excuse overreaction to one and underreaction to the other. (Indeed, lockdowns are arguably a greater novelty than is SARS-CoV-2, but that subject is for a different time.)

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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