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The Precautionary Principle Is Poison

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Here’s a letter to the Washington Post:

Editor:

Attempting to justify renewed travel restrictions in response to the omicron variant, Kathleen Parker writes that “[t]he relative risk of widespread infection from travelers may be statistically insignificant, but why take a chance?” (“Are we overreacting to omicron? I sure hope so. [2]” December 1).

Parker’s conclusion, seemingly so sensible, is in fact self-contradictory. It cannot really be the case that the mere possibility that some activity will cause harm is sufficient to justify measures to restrict that activity. The reason is that there’s also a possibility that the restrictive measures themselves will cause different – and perhaps even worse – harms. In the case of international travel, after all, it’s possible that restrictions would prevent in-person collaboration among scientists – collaboration that would have resulted in a cure for Covid, or even for cancer. Yet surely no one would reject travel restrictions simply because this unfortunate outcome of such restrictions is merely possible.

Asking rhetorically “Why take a chance?” sparks fear that prevents a reasonable comparison of the benefits of some policy to the costs of that policy. Too often the results are policies more destructive than are the problems those policies are meant to solve.

For almost two years now humankind has been panicked into overreacting to Covid – panicked into locking down, into blocking borders, into closing schools, into mandating vaccination, into disrupting ages-old patterns of human interaction – without much, if any, consideration of the long-run costs of these unprecedented measures. It’s dispiriting that a usually sensible person such as Kathleen Parker joins the panic-stricken in not only excusing, but advocating, such overreaction.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030