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Who’s (Ir)Responsible?

Here’s a letter to a new correspondent:

Dr. L___:

You interpret my opposition to lockdowns and other government-imposed restrictions designed to combat Covid-19 as evidence that I’m “blind to responsibilities which we have to one another.”

Your interpretation is mistaken. Opposition to panic-driven, heavy-handed, one-size-and-style-fits-all, unprecedented government measures meant to protect people from Covid – measures imposed top-down and in contradiction to what was regarded until as recently as 2019 as the best advice of public-health officials – is opposition to this method, not the goal, of promoting public health. My opposition to lockdowns and government-imposed mask and vaccine mandates no more means that I am, as you accuse, “hostile to Covid victims” than does my opposition to minimum-wage legislation mean that I am hostile to low-wage workers.

Just as I believe that minimum wages are a counterproductive means, unleashing a host of unintended ill-consequences, of raising low-skilled workers’ incomes, I believe that lockdowns and other Covid mandates are counterproductive means, unleashing a host of unintended ill-consequences, of promoting public health. Perhaps I’m mistaken in one or both of these cases. But I assure you that my position in neither case signals any indifference on my part to human suffering, or any belief that each of us should be allowed to act irresponsibly toward the rest of us.

The truly irresponsible actors, in my view, are government officials who imposed lockdowns and other mandates. Anthony Fauci, for example, no doubt sincerely pursues the goal of minimizing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. But he does so irresponsibly – by which I mean that he does not, because he cannot with any accuracy, weigh the costs to you, to me, and to each of the hundreds of millions of other of our fellow citizens of being restricted according to his counsel. Dr. Fauci advises tirelessly, but he’s immune to most of the resulting consequences of his advice. Individuals who because of his advice lost their jobs, or who died because of delayed cancer diagnoses, or who watched their children sink into depression suffered directly from Dr. Fauci’s advice, yet he personally suffers from these consequences not at all.

My criticism isn’t so much of Dr. Fauci and other such government officials personally as it is of a system in which responsibility for decision-making is so easily seized from individual men and women, each with his or her own unique knowledge and circumstances, and replaced by commands issued by these officials. I understand – as do most people – that the coronavirus is a dangerous pathogen that’s contagious. But I also understand – as too many people seem to have forgotten – that government power is not only also dangerous, but also in its own manner highly contagious. As the economist Robert Higgs persuasively argues, each expansion of government power – especially when fueled by panic – nourishes itself. And as the state grows, individuals’ abilities truly to act responsibly toward each other withers. And thus is paved a path to hell.

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