As professional economists, we have watched the response of much of the economics profession to COVID-era lockdowns with considerable surprise. Given the evident and predictable harms of lockdowns to health and economic well-being, we expected economists to raise the alarm when lockdowns were first imposed. If there is any special knowledge that economists possess, it is that for every good thing, there is a cost. This fact is burned into economists’ minds in the form of the unofficial motto of the economics profession that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
From the depths of our souls, economists believe that the law of unintended consequences applies to every social policy, especially a social policy as all-encompassing and intrusive as lockdown. We economists believe that there are trade-offs in everything, and it is our particular job to point them out even when the whole world is yelling at the top of its voice to be quiet about them. It may still be a good idea to adopt some policy because the benefits are worth the cost, but we should go in with our eyes open about both.
Economists, who study and write about these phenomena for a living, had a special responsibility to raise the alarm. And though some did speak, most either stayed silent or actively promoted lockdown. Economists had one job—notice costs. On COVID, the profession failed.
In the early days of the epidemic, there was fundamental scientific uncertainty about the nature of the virus and the risk it posed. Faced with this uncertainty, many economists (joining other scientists less well trained in thinking about decision-making under uncertainty) adopted a peculiar form of the precautionary principle. The implicit counterfactual exercise in these analyses took at face value the output from compartment models with dubious assumptions  about critical parameters, such as the infection fatality rate from the model and compliance with lockdown policy. Unsurprisingly, these early analyses concluded that lockdowns would be worthwhile, even if they were to cause extensive economic disruptions.
Applied to the COVID crisis, the precautionary principle says that when you have scientific uncertainty, it may make sense to assume the worst-case about the biological or physical phenomenon you want to prevent. This is what the early economic analyses of lockdowns did by taking at face value the early estimates produced by epidemiological models (such as the Imperial College Model) of alarming COVID deaths in the absence of lockdowns.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, not all of the fear of COVID has been rational. Surveys conducted  in Spring 2020  show that people perceived the population mortality and hospitalization risks to be much greater than they actually are. These surveys also indicate that people vastly underestimate the degree to which the risk rises with age. The actual mortality risk from COVID is a thousand  times higher for the elderly than it is for the young. Survey evidence indicates  that people mistakenly perceive age to have a far smaller influence on the mortality risk.
This excess fear has received little media coverage until recently. For example, studies on fear published in July  and December  2020 gained little traction at the time but were discussed by the New York Times in March  2021 and by other high-profile media outlets shortly  after that . These delays indicate a persistent (but now finally easing) unwillingness by the media to accept these facts which are strong evidence that the public fear of COVID has not corresponded to objective facts about the disease.
Economists also erred in closing ranks so quickly and so vociferously to build the ill-advised consensus on lockdowns. One economist even labelled—publicly—those who questioned the consensus as “liars, grifters, and sadists.” Another economist organized a boycott on Facebook of a health economics textbook (written by one of the authors of this piece long before the epidemic started) in response to the publication of the Great Barrington Declaration, which opposed lockdowns and favoured a focused protection approach to the pandemic. Amidst such chilling edicts from the profession’s leaders, it is not surprising that the consensus on lockdowns has been challenged so rarely. Economists and others were intimidated against pointing out lockdown costs.
The attempts to stifle scientific debate on lockdowns have been costly but have come with one silver lining. The use of such underhanded tactics to support a consensus view is always an implicit admission that the arguments supporting the consensus are themselves understood to be too feeble to withstand closer scrutiny.
From another perspective, economists’ support for lockdowns is not surprising. The lockdown consensus can be seen as the natural end result of modern economists’ strong technocratic bent. While economics textbooks still emphasize the profession’s liberal roots and lessons, among professional economists, there is now a widespread belief that almost any societal problem has a technocratic, top-down solution.
Jay Bhattacharya summarizes  on Twitter a revealing finding, of the infection survival rate from Covid-19, in a recent paper by Cathrine Axfors and John Ioannidis :
Here’s another report shared by Jay Bhattacharya : “Lockdowns killed more Canadians under 65 than COVID-19: Statscan. ”
In non-hotspot areas, five fully vaccinated adults will be able to gather outdoors for up to an hour from mid-September while authorities have also signalled small weddings will soon be allowed.
(DBx: How – how – can any civilized man or woman read this quoted sentence, never mind the report from which it is extracted, and conclude that Covidocratic tyranny isn’t real and terrifying? Why aren’t more people protesting this authoritarian madness – this descent into utter, civilization-destroying derangement?)
As Time notes, there’s no evidence that the current strain of coronavirus is more severe than the prior strain (although it does seem more communicable). Yet “more children are showing up” at hospitals “in worse condition than at any previous point during the pandemic,” reports  Politico. This could be because kids are fatter and more out of shape in 2021 than they were in 2020, due to school closings. That leaves their bodies less able to handle the virus, and leaves them in worse condition when they show up at the hospital. But even today , “The overwhelming majority of children who contract the virus don’t require hospitalization, and pediatric deaths still make up less than one-tenth of one percent of all pandemic deaths, according to the CDC.”
Advocates of school closings claimed they were needed  to protect people’s health. But by driving up obesity rates, school closings harmed students’ health. And shutting schools actually increases COVID-19 deaths, according to  researchers at the University of Edinburgh.
If it’s up to our health experts – doctors, scientists and researchers, administrators and bureaucrats – we will never return to the “old normal”. If it’s up to our health professionals, Covid restrictions – border closures, lockdowns, masks, social distancing and so on – will go on and on in the foreseeable future. The advent of coronavirus and its never-ending mutations and strains might, in fact, mark the end of our life as we knew it and herald the “new normal”, ever under the shadow of a rolling pandemic.
Why? Because our health experts and professionals are enjoying it too much.
Once you have tasted and experienced this God-like power to order entire societies according to your best designs, once you acquire this unparalleled position, with its influence and its quasi-saintly public status, do you really want to give it back and retreat again into the previous obscurity when hardly anyone listens to you? And your power, after all, is not base and selfish like a politician’s or a business tycoon’s or vapid and inconsequential like a celebrity’s – you are selfless and working for the public benefit and the common good, and there is nothing nobler under the sun than trying to save lives and reduce human suffering.
Tim Stanley rightly decries “this pale imitation of freedom. ” Two slices:
Like Alice, I hate being forced to do things I know are illogical, but I’m still in a minority – just. The mask broadly persists, along with gels, testing, shouting at each other from a safe distance and, most importantly, that constant drumbeat of statistics that say “it’s not yet over” or “things are getting worse”. Just wait till the schools start again! But rising infection rates are presumably less worrying if more are vaccinated and fewer are dying.
And saying the lockdown is over till it comes back means it’s not over. Just as the disease, once caught, can flare up again in a lingering, debilitating form – “long Covid” – so we’ve fallen prey to “long lockdown”. A way of life is transformed.
Spontaneity – like a carefree and cheap trip abroad – is gone, and there’s no apology for it. Submitting to mindless indignities is treated like the ticket we must rightly pay to enjoy things once taken for granted. Freedom ought to be a first principle, a state of nature, an assumption that unless told otherwise, you can do whatever you want, but the “experts” not only don’t believe this but, I fear, don’t understand it. This is a frightening discovery.
No, the mask is not like the burka, it would be silly to suggest so, but the similarity between religious and health authoritarianism is the process by which a social calamity seems to validate a dogma, that dogma is then enforced by the state but also policed by a paranoid citizenry, until something that ought to be considered onerous or controversial becomes embedded as part of the culture. You wake up to find you are mandated to wear a snorkel in Sainsbury’s.