Two recent events have me thinking (as one does) about the unseen and unintended harms of in action, particularly when it comes to government regulation. First, Germany—which is facing a severe electricity shortage because of the Russia conflict—rejected late last week a legislative proposal to maintain several nuclear power plants that were scheduled to be mothballed this year, choosing to burn more coal instead (including some from Russia). Then, this past weekend, the government and economy of Sri Lanka basically collapsed (thousands of protesters even stormed the presidential palace!) because of a wicked combination of crippling debt and major food and fuel shortages.
At first blush, these events don’t really have much in common (other than the Russia-induced global energy crunch), but dig a little deeper and you see that both have at their roots a thing called the “precautionary principle.”
[T]he precautionary principle is all about a regulatory system’s default setting (banned where there’s merely a “plausible risk”) and the burdens of proof for overcoming that default (allowed only where “conclusive evidence” has been provided). As Mercatus Center’s Adam Thierer put it, “Where there is uncertainty about future risks, the precautionary principle defaults to play-it-safe mode by disallowing trial-and-error progress, or at least making it far more difficult.”
My preferred approach, by contrast, simply flips the script (as the kids say): The presumption is in favor of action and the state bears a high burden of proof to stop it; thus, private actors can freely act (and innovate) without express government approval unless regulators convincingly demonstrate that the action at issue is very likely harmful to society on net. Regulators’ focus instead should be on risk mitigation, not risk elimination. Any resulting problems from an innovation or action would therefore be addressed after it’s undertaken (and preferably via private means such as insurance and self-regulation). That said, regulators can and should develop narrow (issue-specific) restrictions to address things (e.g., cloning) that present a clear risk of catastrophic, irreversible harm.
Thierer, much to his credit, has played a major role in advocating this kind of “permissionless innovation” standard. (For those interested in more on this issue, I highly recommend his post on some permissionless innovation guidelines and this recent interview on the pandemic and the precautionary principle.) As he shows, abandoning precautionary regulation would not only be likely to lead to better health, safety, environmental, and economic outcomes than the precautionary principle does, but also prevent the types of anti-competitive, Kafkaesque “little tyrannies” that many Americans, like my poor friend here in Raleigh, endure daily.
University of Washington professor Tony Gill asks if wokeness is the new sumptuary regulation. Here’s his conclusion:
A truly free and socially-egalitarian society will reject sumptuary taxes, no matter what form they take. Awake to the woke, and reject how it’s spoke.
Nikole Hannah Jones has not written a single line for the newspaper where she is employed as a reporter in over two years. She also lacks a terminal degree in any field, has no prior teaching experience in higher ed, and has no scholarly publications. To cap that off, she has been credibly accused of severe acts of journalistic misconduct, including ghost-editing the web copy of her published articles in an effort to game the Pulitzer Prize review process.
Those facts combined render her fundamentally unqualified to hold a faculty position of any type, let alone one that is hired at the full professor level with tenure.
And now she’s outright grifting off of the taxpayers of North Carolina by securing a payout settlement from UNC to withdraw her lawsuit against the university for receiving all of those things and then declining the offer because the university’s board of trustees briefly pushed back against it.
This beast is a child of the rapacious demands of the modern news cycle and Twitter discourse. Both must be fed — and constantly. When a broadcast journalist is not on camera, they are online: speculating, pontificating, stirring the pot. Politicians and their teams are similarly absorbed: profile-boosting, sledging, tweaking the narrative. Saying things they know to be untrue — but so what? Serious politics requires consideration, wisdom even; manufacturing hysteria is, bluntly, a lot easier. But also a lot more dangerous.
Journalists and politicians might be initiators of this madness, but they are victims of it, too. They, along with the rest of us, sit like spectators in Roman amphitheatres, guzzling booze and baying for blood — caught in a world which encourages anger and catastrophisation to keep the wheels of its consciousness spinning.
It’s very clear that Birx had almost no contact with any serious scientist who disputed the draconian response, not even John Iaonnidis who explained as early as March 17, 2020, that this approach was madness. But she didn’t care: she was convinced that she was in the right, or, at least, was acting on behalf of people and interests who would keep her safe from persecution or prosecution.
For those interested, Chapter 8 provides a weird look into her first real scientific challenge: the seroprevalence study by Jayanta Bhattacharya published April 22, 2020. It demonstrated that the infection fatality rate – because infections and recovery was far more prevalent than Birx and Fauci were saying – was more in line with what one might expect from a severe flu but with a much more focused demographic impact. Bhattacharya’s paper revealed that the pathogen eluded all controls and would likely become endemic as every respiratory virus before. She took one look and concluded that the study had unnamed “fundamental flaws in logic and methodology” and “damaged the cause of public health at this crucial moment in the pandemic.”
And that’s it: that’s Birx grappling with science. Meanwhile, the article was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology and has over 700 citations. She saw all differences of opinion as an opportunity to go on the attack in order to intensify her cherished commitment to the lockdown paradigm.