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On Lockdowns

Here’s a letter to a listener of Russ Roberts’s wonderful podcast, EconTalk:

Mr. G___:

Thanks for your kind and constructive feedback on my EconTalk episode on Covid.

You ask for evidence on the ineffectiveness of lockdowns. In my talk, rather than saying that there’s little evidence that lockdowns reduce the spread of Covid, I should instead have said that there’s little evidence that lockdowns save lives – the latter, of course, being the more important outcome. And it is evidence on the latter that I ultimately had in mind.

This March 2021 essay by the great science writer John Tierney summarizes much of the research. According to him, while there’s no compelling evidence that lockdowns save lives, there’s strong evidence that lockdowns take lives. Here’s Tierney’s conclusion:

If a corporation behaved this way, continuing knowingly to sell an unproven drug or medical treatment with fatal side effects, its executives would be facing lawsuits, bankruptcy, and criminal charges. But the lockdown proponents are recklessly staying the course, still insisting that lockdowns work. The burden of proof rests with those imposing such a dangerous policy, and they haven’t met it. There’s still no proof that lockdowns save any lives -let alone enough to compensate for the lives they end.

And just last month there appeared this National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Virat Agrawal, Jonathan Cantor, Neeraj Sood, and Christopher Whaley. Here’s the abstract:

As a way of slowing COVID-19 transmission, many countries and U.S. states implemented shelter-in-place (SIP) policies. However, the effects of SIP policies on public health are a priori ambiguous as they might have unintended adverse effects on health. The effect of SIP policies on COVID-19 transmission and physical mobility is mixed. To understand the net effects of SIP policies, we measure the change in excess deaths following the implementation of SIP policies in 43 countries and all U.S. states. We use an event study framework to quantify changes in the number of excess deaths after the implementation of a SIP policy. We find that following the implementation of SIP policies, excess mortality increases. The increase in excess mortality is statistically significant in the immediate weeks following SIP implementation for the international comparison only and occurs despite the fact that there was a decline in the number of excess deaths prior to the implementation of the policy. At the U.S. state-level, excess mortality increases in the immediate weeks following SIP introduction and then trends below zero following 20 weeks of SIP implementation. We failed to find that countries or U.S. states that implemented SIP policies earlier, and in which SIP policies had longer to operate, had lower excess deaths than countries/U.S. states that were slower to implement SIP policies. We also failed to observe differences in excess death trends before and after the implementation of SIP policies based on pre-SIP COVID-19 death rates.

Of course, as with all topics the least bit controversial, evidence can be found in support of whatever position one holds. Enough torturing of the data will indeed cause them to confess to whatever the torturer wishes. This reality, however, doesn’t mean that all empirical studies are equally (in)valid. Some are much better than others. Ultimately, the reader must use sound judgment to determine which studies to accept and which to reject.

A final point: Even if the best evidence shows that lockdowns save lives, the case for lockdowns isn’t made. Lockdowns have consequences other than in the health dimension. Not the least of these consequences are the open-ended risks that inhere in the expansion of arbitrary government power over the ordinary affairs of life. As my emeritus Nobel-laureate colleague Vernon Smith wrote three days ago on Facebook: “What I have learned in the past year is that the mandators like controls, to control, and to have a justification for it. And now there is a reluctance to give them up.

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