Over at EconLog David Henderson favorably linked and commented on my recent AIER essay in which I warned against efforts to impose criminal or civil liability on the individuals who were prominent in inflicting on humanity the calamitous and inexcusable lockdowns.
In response to David’s post, commenter Joseph Sleckman wrote:
Mr. Boudreaux’s argument reminds me of the question “When did you stop beating your wife”. As I interpret the article, he argues that he is against revenge in the form legal panels that could lead to putting Dr. Anthony Fauci behind bars, and fines that would bankrupt Dr. Birx and Governor Whitmer. But he nevertheless would find these punishments satisfying. It seems to me that his opposition to revenge, if so, does not flow from the wisdom of Confucius, but rather from pragmatic political considerations.
Here’s my reply (slightly modified), also posted as a comment at EconLog, to Mr. Sleckman’s comment:
Mr. Sleckman: My opposition is to holding lockdowners personally liable, under criminal or civil law, for their policy decisions. (Obviously, if in the course of their reign they violated any extant criminal or civil laws, then they should be held personally accountable for having done so.)
My warning might fairly be described as “pragmatic.” But contrary to what I think is your implication, the pragmatism here is not unwise, but wise. (Or so I believe it to be.) It is wise not to impose personal penalties under the law on government officials for their policy decisions. The reason is that, were we to do so, a very dangerous precedent would be set that would constrain – and not in good ways – government officials going forward in the policy choices they make. Nearly every time government changed hands from one party to another, persecution of the ousted officials would occur. We’d be completely transformed from a constitutional republic into a banana one.
Is the following calculation pragmatic?: Sacrificing the satisfaction that would come from personally punishing lockdowners for their calamitous policy decisions is not worth the likely harm from the newly created precedent. Again, I’m not utterly opposed to using that term in this way. But I think the better term here is “wise.”
Thomas Sowell warns against “the quest for cosmic justice.” If an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent deity governed human political and legal affairs, I’d trust that deity to punish as it sees fit. Such a godly creature is fitted to mete out cosmic justice. But we mortal humans are not. We must beware not to allow today’s fury, no matter how justified it might be in ethics, to unleash political and legal precedents that we’ll regret. I think that such prudence is the course of wisdom.